Trying To Suffer
Nothing that exists is worthy absolutely
of our love, said Simone Weil, who was a lover
by default of that which doesnt, as she cutely
proved by starving, trying just like Christ to suffer.
Inspired by Heidi Walesons review of Kaija Saariahos oratorio Le Passion de Simone in the WSJ, August 23,2008 (Get That Girl Some Prozac: Saariahos Weil is less Christ figure than self-indulgent sufferer) :
Can an oratorio communicate philosophy? Can philosophy make a good oratorio? Kaija Saariaho's 'La Passion de Simone' (2006) , a meditation on the life and death of the French philosopher Simone Weil, which had its U.S. premiere at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Aug.13, tries to do both, yet what comes through most powerfully is the sensibility of a very odd young woman. The elemental reaction to the piece is not engagement with high-level thought but, rather, 'Get that girl some Prozac.'
Weil, born in Paris in 1909, learned ancient Greek as a child, graduated from the Ιcole Normale Supιrieure, and taught philosophy in a high school. The daughter of well-to-do agnostic Jews, she was drawn to both Marxism and Christian mysticism, and her writings, most of them published posthumously, deal with history, religion and politics. Though physically frail - she had persistent migraines, anorexia, and eventually tuberculosis - she insisted on experiencing the suffering of others and made self-deprivation a way of life, finally starving herself to death in an English hospital in 1943 because she refused to eat more than she believed her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France did. She was 34 - and, as Amin Maalouf's text for 'La Passion' points out, almost the age of Christ. The Christ reference is, of course, no accident. The oratorio, for orchestra, chorus and soprano, runs about 75 minutes without intermission and is structured as a passion play with 15 'stations' that reflect stages in Weil's life and thought. A recorded voice (French actress Dominique Blanc) speaks disembodied lines from her writings. The soprano, Dawn Upshaw, acts as a narrator, addressing Weil as 'big sister and little sister, ' describing her experiences, but also criticizing and channeling them. The chorus sometimes comments and sometimes echoes the narrator's lines.
'Passion' carries multiple meanings in the piece. There is the purely Christian interpretation, with Weil's death portrayed as a 20th-century Crucifixion, but just as intense is the evocation of Weil's own passion for her ideas, and the narrator's unhappiness and confusion at the way she lived her life. The triumphant apotheosis of her suicide, for example, is followed by these words: 'Your grace is liberated from the gravity of the world. But the earth where you abandoned us is still the kingdom of deceit where the innocent tremble.' This extreme emotionality is conveyed through the densely textured orchestration (which retains its power despite its almost glacial pace and relatively little rhythmic variation) , the bright contrast of some haunting instrumental solos for oboe and violin, the weighty contributions of the chorus, and the solo vocal line, an anguished, melodic lament that Ms. Upshaw delivered with her signature crystalline purity and visceral connection to the notes.
But still, psychiatric intervention - pharmaceutical or otherwise - seems to have been called for. Episodes in 'La Passion' include Weil's stint in a factory (she wanted to experience the dehumanizing life of a worker) and her encounters with war, but also her idiosyncrasies, such as cutting herself off from family and friends, and her inability to love or accept love. The gnomic utterances about power, love and evil from the writings - for example, 'Nothing that exists is absolutely worthy of love, so we must love that which does not exist' - are hard to fathom out of context (they are pretty tough in context as well) , so the prevailing impression is one of self-indulgence in suffering, all the way to the suicide, which, given the fact that Weil was anorexic, takes on connotations other than Christ-like self-sacrifice.
Moreover, an extended contemplation of her factory identity card with its number, associating it with the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jews in concentration camps, relates those two dehumanizing situations, but since Weil wasn't in a concentration camp and there are anti-Semitic passages in her writings, having her take on that particular mantle of suffering seems a little unsavory.
Peter Sellars's direction of this semistaged performance also zeroed in on Weil's personal adoption of the sufferings of the world. Ms. Upshaw, wearing an impossibly dowdy gray dress and sweater (Martin Pakledinaz was responsible for costume design) and a hideous hairstyle, suffered a lot, grimacing as she sat at a table and wrote, opened a free-standing door to admit the cacophonous sounds and blinding light of the world, or crouched and lay flat on the floor. She was shadowed and supported by a gray-clad dancer, Michael Schumacher, a kind of mute accompanist. Seeing it all enacted with such literalness made the philosophy even more distant, and the eccentricity paramount. Perhaps if Ms. Upshaw and the fine ensembles - the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and London Voices - all conducted admirably by Susanna Mδlkki, had performed the work unstaged, the impact would have been different.
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