From Ezra Pound’s translation of the Japanese Noh plays Peter Sellars set to Kaija Saariaho’s new Only the Sound Remains: “Here is a beauty, to set the mind above itself,” perfectly characterizes this innovative music theatre. Opening the first edition of Opera Forward Festival, intended to attract a younger audience and launch new works, this DNO world première disarms, seduces and hypnotizes the audience. Not since Written on Skin has modern opera thrilled with such intensity. With Philippe Jaroussky’s voice as the centrepiece of Saariaho’s electronic techniques, his voice resonated as never before.

Philippe Jaroussky (Tennin/Angel), Davone Tines (Fisherman) and Nora Kimball-Mentzos (Dance) © Ruth Walz
Philippe Jaroussky (Tennin/Angel), Davone Tines (Fisherman) and Nora Kimball-Mentzos (Dance)
© Ruth Walz

Saariaho’s symphonic soundscapes benefit from their brevity and compact intensity, where her longer operas sometimes suffer from intermittent monotony. With Only the Sounds Remains, the Finnish composer has created two intense experiences as a double bill, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of length. Each play has its own musical world, though clearly both of them sprung from the same compositional imagination.

In Always Strong, a priest contacts a dead soldier’s spirit, and in Feather Mantle a fisherman finds the mantle of a “Tennin” (angel), who needs it to return to heaven. Don’t expect to understand the stories. In this form of theatre, character and narrative make way for aesthetics. Created by 13th century Zen masters, the deliberate pacing of Noh theatre intends to slow down the mind, thereby inviting the audience to contemplation. Far from copying the Japanese, Sellars reinvents the Noh plays for opera, but holding on to the introspective Zen qualities.

Saariaho’s music originates from spectralism, soundscapes focusing on colour and texture. Through Eija Kankaanranta’s kantele play, Camilla Hoitenga’s variety of flutes, and the plethora of percussion managed by Niek Kleinjan, the composer creates her distinct ethereal style. Together with the Dudok Kwartet and a quartet of singers from the Dutch Chamber Choir, André de Ridder conducted them all in an elevated pit in front of the stage. DCC singers offered clear diction (even in the Japanese words), accentuating emotion through evocative hand gestures typical of Noh theatre.

Davone Tines (Fisherman) and Nora Kimball-Mentzos (Dance) © Ruth Walz
Davone Tines (Fisherman) and Nora Kimball-Mentzos (Dance)
© Ruth Walz

Saariaho’s fascinating application of electronica enriched her score. David Poissonnier’s sound projections seamlessly entwined the music with electronics.These effects do not function as instruments, but enhanced her music with glowing aureoles, outstretched tones, and rhythmic vocal repetitions. Exciting peaks emerged through the remarkable stereophonic effects that created a surround sound enveloping the audience from all sides, often with ghostly results.

Saariaho composed specifically for Jaroussky’s angelic countertenor. She builds a captivating vocal world, revealing a refreshingly different side to the famous singer. With the electronics his highly piercing voice seemed surrounded by a halo, entrancing your mind, making you forget everything except the beauty on stage.

Sellars sets Saariaho’s music to a haunting phantasmagoria of lights and shadows. Designer Julie Mehretu created two giant, grey canvasses brushed with black strokes that through James Ingalls atmospheric lighting seemed to emerge from the cloth. The two singers move around as the lighting changes and their shadows increase or recede.

In Feather Mantle, in return for the mantle, the angel dances for the fisherman. Nora Kimball-Mentzos performed captivatingly: elegant in her expression of the tiny hand movements, graceful in her wide steps and sweeps. As she danced through the different lights, the canvasses captured her shade following her movements. In her white, nearly sheer dress, she dazzled the audience. This is Sellars at his best.

Davone Tines (Priest), musicians and conductor André de Ridder © Ruth Walz
Davone Tines (Priest), musicians and conductor André de Ridder
© Ruth Walz

Jaroussky and Davone Tines, whose earthly, deep voice exquisitely contrasted the countertenor’s rarified voice, generated a sensuality that Sellars suspensefully guided through Saariaho’s slow-burning musical tension, resulting in several highly charged moments on stage. The enormity of the Amsterdam stage created a problem, as it detracted from intimacy. I suspect a smaller venue would stimulate far more focus, yielding an even more intense experience.

With Only The Sound Remains, Pierre Audi has succeeded at programming something spectacularly different to attract a new audience. This introspective music theatre, this future of opera, overwhelms with beauty, stimulates the imagination, and entrances the mind. Don’t miss it.

*****