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Saariaho's 'Simone' transcends passion

January 16, 2009 |  1:30 pm

DawnbigContradiction, Simone Weil wrote, when experienced to the depths of our being, tears us heart and soul. "It is our cross."

And this 20th century French philosopher, social activist and mystic, this insufferable saint who chose death over life, created a freakishly brilliant morality out of her own agonizing contradictions.  Those contradictions are the center of Kaija Saariaho’s shocking “La Passion de Simone,” an oratorio written for soprano Dawn Upshaw, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and given its West Coast premiere by the orchestra in a staging by Peter Sellars at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday evening.

What is shocking about the oratorio is its penetrating honesty.  It raises questions that can’t be answered.  It expresses despair too profound for consolation.  And yet this perverse Passion –- unforgettably performed by Upshaw, the orchestra and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen -- engulfs us in an all but unbearably sublime suffering.

“Simone,” which has a luminous French text by the Paris-based Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, presents Simone’s life as 15 Stations of the Cross.  She was born in 1909 to a Jewish intellectual family.  Her brother, André Weil, was a famed mathematician.  She and her contentious classmate Simone de Beauvoir were the first women in France to obtain advanced academic degrees.

For Weil, the moral high ground became an alarming playground of sacrifice.  As Sellars said in a pre-concert talk, she put her body where her belief systems were.  In sympathy with the proletariat, she destroyed her health toiling in a factory, even as her ineptitude made life hell for her co-workers.  She died of starvation in England in 1943, refusing to take a bite out of solidarity with the French in Nazi death camps.  Her writings, full of painfully brilliant insight and outrageous absurdity, were published posthumously.

Maalouf’s text acknowledges all sides of Weil.  The soprano is at times Weil’s fictional older or younger sister, who argues with the heroine, tries to comprehend her in the 15 short tableaux, each a way station toward tragedy.  The chorus adds further comment on Weil’s analyses of good and evil.  Recordings of brief quotations from Weil, read by the French actress Dominique Blanc, are played on loudspeakers.  One is: “Nothing that exists is absolutely worthy of love, so we must love what does not exist.”

Saariaho’s music tries my powers of description.  The Finnish composer, a close friend of Salonen’s since their schooldays, is a harmonist.  Her harmonies are not, these days, especially complex, but when combined with her ear for exquisite instrumental color, they create a world to which a listener is magnetically drawn. 

Sellars placed Upshaw on a platform behind the orchestra.  The props were a door and a desk.  Saariaho’s vocal lines balance torture with grace.  And Sellars insists that every emotion be telegraphed.

For 75 solid minutes, Upshaw embodies an epic struggle of life and death.  In the post-Wagnerian world of both Weil and Saariaho, there can be no transcendence of death.  But there must be acceptance.  After the performance, maybe a dozen people said exactly the same thing to me: “Wasn’t that beautiful?”  It was.

Oh yes, there is a dancer as well.  Michael Schumacher shares the stage with Upshaw.  Her angel and her devil, he supports her in her folly and fervor.  He seemed to me intrusive, yet in a further contradiction, I can’t imagine the performance without him.

Although always intended for the Philharmonic, “Simone” took a while to reach us because of illness and scheduling problems.  Upshaw was diagnosed with cancer during early rehearsals in 2006.  The premiere was in Vienna with a different soprano and conductor and was a shaky, violent show.  The work has since been given in New York, London and Helsinki.  Thursday was the first time that Salonen and Upshaw were performing the piece together.

The delay was to our advantage.  Under Salonen and heard in the Disney acoustic, the score blossoms like a flower, and tragedy takes on tenderness and compassion.  “Simone” is now a triumph for all concerned, even Simone.

"La Passion de Simone," Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Jan. 17. $17-$147. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Dawn Upshaw, Michael Schumacher and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale performing "La Passion de Simone." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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