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Review: Émilie – The Female Faust

Kaija Saariaho’s opera Émilie at the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, Monday, April 6, 2015.

Saariaho’s opera takes the spectator/listener immediately into its network and texture of music, image, colour and stage. To stay 1h 20 min inside this sound bath is pleasant. One is as if floating in an oniric state. Yet, here the narrative is definitely Europe in the 18th century. Amin Maalouf has utilized original texts and sources, but made a dramatic arrangement. The historical time is indicated by a harpsichord from beginning to end, an instrument which the real Émilie du Châtelet played. But as to the stage, it is true what the director Marianne Weems says, namely that the elegant and complex composition of Saariaho calls for a design beyond the boundaries of backdrops and set pieces. This is namely an opera of a human mind, not necessarily woman or man, transgressing the boundaries of the empirically observable world. So it is transcendental.

Saariaho is fascinated by protagonists with some obsessional ‘project’ to be filled – like in Simone’s passion. Here Émilie’s passion is to get immersed into the universe dominated by the beauty of mathematical, geometrical, eternal and rational laws. In the climax of the opera she sings high pitched about Principia mathematica (in monk Latin pronouncing prinsipia and sisero) as an extatic declaration. The feminist rhetoric gesture is less convincing. She is united with the whole macrocosm. Unfortunately her microcosm is limited by and bound with triviality: biological processes of her body. Here is the inner conflict of the whole opera. Is is a great narrative, strong enough to captivate the interest of the audience during the whole performance.

There are not many operas about science and scientists. Oswald Spengler has said that science dies if it does not become an experience to anyone. For Émilie, her science of mathematics is indeed a deeply felt personal issue, even more important than life itself. Of course what comes first to one’s mind is Faust. The Germans never got their dream: a Faust composed by a German composer, a Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner. Faust is at the beginning somewhat in the same situation as Emilie: Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, Juristerei und Medizin und leider auch Theologie durchaus studiert, da steh ich nun ich armer Tor, und bin so klug als wie zuvor! (I have studied all sciences and here I stay as stupid as before.) Then comes Mephisto with his offer which Faust accepts. There is a remarkable difference, however, since Émilie never doubts her science, erudition and wisdom. They remain her major aspiration and belief until the end of the opera. She imagines how her great work would appear posthumously. It is important because she wants to be remembered and ‘eternalized’ . Even at the risk of what Jean Cocteau said later: C’est mieux d’être l’homme vivant et l’artiste posthume que le contraire. Emilie’s Mephistos are Voltaire and thereafter her lover Saint-Lambert. However, she does not abandon herself totally to worldly temptations, but keeps her passion for science.

In music, the comparison points would be Schoenberg’s Erwartung or Poulenc’s La voix humaine. As Émilie sings the tragedy and death always loom in the finale. Yet, if one likes, one could recall Luonnotar of Sibelius, a work about the myth of the creation of the world, not far afield from Emilie’s visions albeit in the Age of Reason. True, Saariaho’s music has a fateful atmosphere as if anticipating a personal tragedy, but it also has an exaltation of orchestral effects apt to portray the universe. If Émilie’s own microcosm approaches its end because the principles of mathematics did not reach it, this is one version of the destiny of the universe. This reminds me of a lecture by Nobel prize winner in physics, professor Saul Perlmutter last November at the University of Aix-Marseille: The universe has three alternatives: 1) if everything started with the Big Bang it will also end the same way: so, not so nice, 2) everything is getting faster and faster and so at the end we will disappear: neither a good idea 3) everything is getting slower and slower and so the universe will never end: this sounds good! Saariaho’s musical universe is somewhat an analogy with the idea of an unending nature. Fortunately so as I said, and so the experience of listening to it is analogous to a Japanese Nô theater. Nevertheless, the music also has its dramatic moments. Variety is created by adding a duetto voice of Voltaire or a child but it more or less duplicates the soprano voice. Visually the most impressive is perhaps the fourth one, Rays. Camilla Nylund mastered her role with much devotion, style and vocal splendour. The orchestra performed skillfully under André de Ridder, who kept the global form in his hands and built dynamic highlights convincingly. The harpshichordist distinguished herself as well.

— Eero Tarasti


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