When L’Amour de loin premièred at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, Kaija Saariaho opened a new century of opera with her brave synthesis of Wagner’s and Debussy’s confronted myths of separation, impossible love and nocturnal yearning. Almost two decades later, her fourth opera comes as a pleasant confirmation of a brilliant compositional style but fails to take a step further along that aesthetic path. Only the Sound Remains, a joint commission by several opera houses that premièred in Amsterdam in 2016 and comes now to the Teatro Real, is a superbly crafted musical jewel but does not live up to its own promise of transcendence, creating the warm feeling of visiting a familiar place coupled with a melancholy sense of lack of purpose.

Philippe Jaroussky, Davóne Tines and Nora Kimball-Mentzos
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Inspired by two pieces of Noh theatre compiled by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, Saariaho has made a departure from her recent explorations of female characters and motherhood (Adriana Mater, La Passion de Simone, Émilie) and has returned to the topic of the connection of two distant worlds. Always Strong (Tsunemasa) tells the story of a monk whose religious offering brings back, for a brief and sad moment, the spirit of a lutenist. In Feather Mantle (Hagoromo), a fisherman finds an angel’s robe and returns it in exchange for a celestial dance. For the first time in her career, Saariaho has not trusted Amin Maalouf with the libretto and the texts appear to have been used unadapted, perhaps in an effort not to taint them with a clashing concept of dramaturgy. However, the lack of a librettist has taken its toll; the music surrounds and caresses the text but does not really establishes a dramatic dialogue with it, adding to its static lyricism.

Considered independently, the score is brilliant. Saariaho is at her most meticulous and inspired writing for the two solo instruments that bear all the narrative burden: the flute (doubling alto, bass and piccolo), superbly played by long-time collaborator Camila Hoitenga, and the Finnish kantele, turned here into an otherworldly version of the Japanese biwa. A string quartet provides a solid supporting architecture and a rich set of percussion constantly pierces the veil of possibility, creating the perfect atmosphere for the supernatural. A SATB chorus echoes the voices of the main characters in Always Strong and becomes a subtle narrator in Feather Mantle. All the sounds were transformed electronically, with reverberations and delays, and reproduced in several speakers, creating a surrounding effect that was not really used to its full potential. As a whole, Saariaho's score prefers quietism to contrast and only draws a distinct rhythmic pattern at the very end, introducing for the first time a sense of progression that would have been welcome in other parts of the work.

Davóne Tines and Nora Kimball-Mentzos
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Both plays use the same baritone—countertenor contrast for depicting the basic dichotomy of the characters. In Always Strong, Davóne Tines, with his mellow lyric baritone, perfect diction and convincing acting, plays a sweet and respectful monk, eager to prolong the contact with the spirit but at the same time fearful and overwhelmed. He contrasted it well with the character of Feather Mantle, the ruder and bolder fisherman who is finally won by the tenderness of the angel. Philippe Jaroussky, on the other hand, failed to convey the supposed fascination of his two supernatural characters. His timbre retains its outstanding beauty and roundedness, enhanced by the effects of the electroacoustic system, but his phrasing was bland, a bit lost in the monotonous lines of Saariaho’s characteristic recitative, and his stiff acting didn’t help either. Fortunately, dancer Nora Kimball-Mentzos doubled the character of the angel in Feather Mantle and with subtle moves and a choreography that truly seemed to come from a distant, unattainable world was able to give a glimpse of what such an extraordinary creature might look like.

Nora Kimball-Mentzos, Philippe Jaroussky and Davóne Tines
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Peter Sellars’ late evolution towards minimalism and hyper-aestheticism was perfect for the occasion. Two large paintings by Julie Mehretu were the only background to the action, a fascinating wall of ephemeral architecture and blurred calligraphies that allows the connection between the two worlds. Light was the only scenographic resource and James Ingalls cleverly used spotlights from low angles to project dramatic shadows of the characters over the paintings, creating at the same time a sense of intimacy and an amplified version of the play. Sellars’ directing focused on creating highly stylised gestures, echoing the conventions of the Noh theatre but using his usual symbolic language.

Only the Sound Remains is the realisation of a delectable comfort zone, achieved through decades of musical excellency, but its invitation to mere aesthetic evasion feels unchallenging and incomplete. As with Jaufré in L'amour de loin, I want more.