The echoes from last year’s Mozart 250th anniversary celebrations rumble on. The New Crowned Hope festival was Vienna’s tribute to Mozart and a big cultural draw in the city throughout 2006, but its main events are only gradually filtering through to the other organisations in London, New York and Los Angeles that jointly commissioned them.
It was an ambitious undertaking. The American director Peter Sellars was invited to put together a festival entirely of new work and his chosen collaborators – composers John Adams and Kaija Saariaho, choreographer Mark Morris and the Kronos Quartet among them – delivered several important new pieces as well as a supporting programme that embraced films and lectures.
Highlights from New Crowned Hope have now arrived at the Barbican Centre in London, where they jostle for space in the calendar with the Mostly Mozart festival through to the middle of August. Mark Morris trippingly led the way with his Mozart Dances last week and Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone followed on Tuesday, a sober counterpart based on the life and philosophy of the French-Jewish writer Simone Weil.
Sellars’ presiding influence is felt everywhere here. He has always liked to work in a concentrated fashion with favoured colleagues – Saariaho’s first international success, the opera L’Amour de loin, was directed by him, as was her second opera, Adriana Mater – and one senses his strong (usually anti-American) political views shaping works even before their composers have put pen to paper.
That seems to have been the course for La Passion de Simone, too. Saariaho’s love for the spiritual in Weil’s writings has found a counterpart in Sellars’s admiration for her political activities, while Amin Maalouf, third member of their triumvirate, has come on board again, writing a libretto of 15 “stations”, each a short scene exemplifying one aspect of Weil’s beliefs or life story.
The work is described as an oratorio, though the classification almost seems to be stated in order to be denied. This is a staged work, more like an opera for solo singer. Within a cell-like set, Simone Weil stands before us, gently intoning her beliefs. A female voice-over quotes lines from Weil’s writings. A dancer acts as muse or companion. An off-stage chorus hymns its affirmatory support. The orchestra provides an understated accompaniment of Saariaho’s most luminescent sounds, typically shimmering percussion or quietly radiant wind chords reminiscent of Messiaen.
So much is going on. But is it too much or not enough? All these different elements gave the impression of a work that is desperate to leave behind the physical limitations of a concert platform and ascend to a place where the arts coalesce into a higher form of expression. Unfortunately, the humdrum reality of an orchestra and a small stage with armchair was always before us. (Would this Passion work better as some kind of personal download, to be heard in pitch-black solitude?). The result was uniformly grey and monotonous, neither vivid enough to work as a conventional drama, nor focusing minds clearly enough on Weil’s own words to send us away with a strong grasp on her philosophy.
There need be no complaints about the London performance. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, who is invariably heard at her best in new works, sang with a radiance that lifted the spirit, and the combined forces of London Voices and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were heard to fine effect under conductor Robert Spano. There is one further performance of La Passion de Simone at the Barbican on Thursday. Then the work moves on (with mostly different performers) to Helsinki and Stockholm in August and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in October.
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