Émilie, Lincoln Center Festival, New York

Brilliant. Perceptive. Introspective. Provocative. Earnest. Tedious.

This is Kaija Saariaho’s monodrama Émilie, presented on Thursday at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The protagonist, Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, was a mathematician, analytical physicist, philosopher and unabashed sensualist during the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire, one of her numerous lovers, described her as “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”.

The ever-useful Lincoln Center annotation informs us, not incidentally, that she “refuted the widely accepted notion that e=mv (energy = mass x velocity) and proved instead that e=mv²”. Oh.

Saariaho and her librettist Amin Maalouf devote 80 minutes – 80 turgid, durchkomponiert minutes – to Émilie’s intimate musings as she awaits the birth of an illegitimate child and her own death. The central soprano must command an extraordinarily wide range, technical flexibility, verbal virtuosity and steady nerves. The vocal lines juxtapose quirky parlando with soaring, fragmented melody. In the pit a chamber orchestra babbles, snaps, flicks and rumbles incessantly. A harpsichord provides period accents as rhythmic irregularity ensures unease. Electronic distortion periodically confirms contemporary sensibility. It is all very complicated, very high-minded.

Eventually, however, Émilie probes too much thought and not enough emotion. Dynamic evolution and theatrical delineation move cautiously, if at all. For better or worse (probably worse), Saariaho and Maalouf concentrate on elaborately mystical mumbo-jumbo plus metaphysical obfuscation.

When first performed in Lyon two years ago, the opera served as a vehicle for the dramatic soprano Karita Mattila. In these pages, Andrew Clark lauded the singer but not the staging or the “monochrome” score. “The music,” he wrote, “goes on and on in the same dreamily sophisticated style, with the same vocal clichés and the same sustained blocks of eerily atmospheric sound.” Plus ça change ...

The totally different Lincoln Center production, first seen in Charleston last summer, does everything imaginable to disguise inertia. Marianne Weems, the director, creates a compelling series of moody tableaux amid Neal Wilkinson’s semi-abstract, ultra-flexible designs. Austin Switser projects clever pictorial aids on translucent triangular panels. John Kennedy conducts sensitively. Most imposing, Elizabeth Futral – a lyric soprano otherwise engaged these days as Marian the librarian in The Music Man at Glimmerglass – sings Émilie with astonishing purity and clarity, with rare stamina and urgency. She makes the difficult sound easy, the trivial important. It is a noble achievement.


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