It doesn’t do to take yourself too seriously, they say; but Simone Weil had other ideas. Life and death as an out-and-out misery proved to be a shrewd career move, and as a silver-spoon socialist she prospered in inter-war Paris as a professional gloom merchant. Weil the philosopher was like Woody Allen without the gags.

<i>La Passione de Simone</i> © Smau Media
La Passione de Simone
© Smau Media

None of that is fair, of course, but I offer it as an antidote to the tasteless deification of her memory in La Passion de Simone, the opera-oratorio that Kaija Saariaho forged from Weil’s life ten years ago. It was given at this year’s Bergen International Festival in the chamber version of 2013, and I emerged from its 65 minutes of gooey adoration feeling decidedly grubby.

Saariaho is the resident composer at Bergen this year and was present to witness an aurally polished account of this “Musical Path in Fifteen Stations”, as the piece is unironically subtitled. At least we were spared a Peter Sellars production, although the originating director’s fingerprints are all over the work’s passionate humanity, contentious imagery and eternal feminism.

Simone Weil was an intellectual whose despair at the course of world events led her to give up the ghost in 1943 aged just 34. She died of tubercolosis after weakening herself by fasting in sympathy with the starving people of France, having spent the preceding decade travelling through Nazi Germany and revolutionary Spain in an attempt to understand the causes and nature of oppressive régimes. (It’s idle to wonder what she would have made of today’s surge in populism.) She was that rare beast, a practical philosopher; but La Passion de Simone does little to celebrate her life’s achievements. Instead, Amin Maalouf’s libretto deals in oblique quotations. “Nothing that exists is absolutely worthy of love. We must love that which does not exist.”

<i>La Passione de Simone</i> © Smau Media
La Passione de Simone
© Smau Media

If the text is precious and opaque, Saariaho’s score is a thing of beauty and imagination. It inhabits the same universe as L'Amour de loin, her earlier and infinitely more satisfying stage work. The 19 members of BIT20 Ensemble under Clément Mao-Takacs propelled the long string figures through bends and straights, and jangled discreet punctuations on a range of percussion exotica. A harp was the music’s heartbeat, an oboe Weil’s plangent companion. The composer’s textures depend on a full ensemble so no instrument was silent for long.

The Weil of the opera suffers her travails amid big, dissonant clusters that suggest a headache, or else in thick, vertical Messiaenic chords – plink, plonk, plank, plunk – in music that skirts the edges of tonality yet luxuriates in a delicious harmonic ache. Saariaho’s lush orchestral shapes could just as readily suggest ecstasy as agony. Only the absence of resolution gives the game away.

<i>La Passione de Simone</i> © Smau Media
La Passione de Simone
© Smau Media

While there is numinosity in Saariaho’s score, there was none in Aleksi Barrière’s grungy, spare production. Sandra Darcel, Marianne Seleskovitch, Johan Viau and Romain Dayez formed a miniature chorus, casually attired and even more casually directed in moves that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a drama workshop for teenagers. Variously cast as interlocutors, imprisoners, confidants, echoes, machine operators and machines, they supported a virtuosic central performance by the Japanese soprano Sayuri Araida as a Weil-alike ‘sister’. Araida, in tandem with doppelgänger actress Isabelle Seleskovitch, vacillated between musing on and playing out Simone’s life and death.

Were La Passion de Simone even half as contentious as its quasi-religious trappings it could have been a rewarding experience. Weil was a titan of 20th-century thinking, but here she’s reduced by well-intentioned hands to an object of sentiment. If Saariaho and Maalouf had wanted to commemorate an icon of war, Anne Frank would have been a better prospect. At least she enjoyed a joke.

 

Mark Valencia's press trip was sponsored by Bergen International Festival

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