“I put into your hands manuscripts that I very much wish will remain after me,” wrote Émilie du Châtelet shortly before the birth of her fourth child in 1749. “I hope... that my lying-in, which I am expecting at any moment, will not be fatal, as I fear.” Her fears did prove fatal, and she died days after giving birth, at the age of 42.
These lines offer the dramatic impetus for Émilie, Kaija Saariaho’s otherworldly monodrama exploring the last thoughts of du Châtelet, notable for her contributions to philosophy and science as well as for being Voltaire’s longtime lover. Saariaho’s Émilie, fearlessly portrayed by the thoughtful soprano Elizabeth Futral, vividly brings us into the complex world of du Châtelet’s fears, passions, and remarkable talents.
Monodrama runs the risk of monotony: there is only so much action that can take place with one person onstage. Yet Saariaho’s innovative use of timbre and form strengthens the work’s dramatic qualities. The opera consists of nine continuous scenes, in which Émilie expounds on her many anxieties – about death, her legacy, the difficulties facing women – each presented in slightly different musical worlds. In her last year of life du Châtelet took on the task of translating Newton’s Philosophæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica into French, and much of the opera explores her sense of urgency to finish the work before what she senses will be her death.
As with much of Saariaho’s music, time seemed to stand still for it. A signature of Saariaho’s style is her constantly mutating palette of orchestral colors and shifting textures. Slow string glissandos made it sound as if the orchestra was melting, and jagged passages under legato vocal lines supported du Châtelet’s restless spirit. Saariaho’s ear for color results in gentle cymbal rolls that merge with clarinet trills, which imperceptibly transition to quivering strings, with woodwind chirps and percussion pulses throughout. Sudden outbursts from the entire ensemble are over as soon as they’ve begun, surprising us with flashpoints in the otherwise nervous, foreboding tone of the work.
Saariaho’s innovative use of live electronics plays a role in several moments, such as when Futral’s voice was manipulated to sound like a baritone during the “Voltaire” scene, or to sound high and innocent when she sang to her child. When du Châtelet writes, it is with an “amplified pen,” the scribblings sounding like a pitchless string instrument. Saariaho adds a harpsichord to the ensemble, which du Châtelet herself played, with intermittent gestures that evoke Baroque keyboard writing, or repetitions of a single note, sounding like an anachronistic medical device.
Soprano Elizabeth Futral was a beautiful Émilie, enriching the orchestral colors with her own choice of timbres and broad range of emotions. She physically inhabited the role, with specific and believable stage direction by Marianne Weems. The production – a dazzling affair of weightless geometric screens suspended above a simple set of desk and chaise – heightened but never upstaged the music. Set designer Neal Wilkinson and video designer Austin Switser projected images of du Châtelet’s handwriting, Newtonian schematics, and a forest of flickering candles. Nice touches included the appearance of the first candle just as flutist Elizabeth Janzen blew a pitchless note on the alto flute, and the dissolve of Futral’s face into a sunburst at the end of her discourse on her anxieties about finishing Newton’s Principia. John Kennedy conducted the excellent Ensemble ACJW.
As is often the case in a dramatic work in which the tension rests with situation, not action, the libretto had a heavy burden to bear. Written by Saariaho’s longtime collaborator Amin Maalouf, the text was usually graceful and strove to reflect du Châtelet’s existentialist musings (“fear of death lasts a lifetime, death itself only an instant”), but with so many anxieties, it tended toward the repetitive and heavy-handed. Futral sang, snarled, spoke, and moaned in French with occasional outbursts in English.
Saariaho writes in her note on the piece that she had never been comfortable with the way women are portrayed in the famous monodramas, such as Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Poulenc’s La voix humaine. And yet, while du Châtelet is certainly a more accomplished and nuanced character than these two nameless heroines, she ultimately shares their fate. Whether expressing nostalgia for Voltaire or concerns for her baby daughter in a man’s world, du Châtelet is as undone by men as any woman – or for that matter, operatic character – was during her time. But her accomplishments speak to her immortality. And so does Saariaho’s memorable portrait of her.