La Passion de Simone (chamber version)
Isabelle Seleskovitch, actress
This past May marked a major achievement in the acclaimed career of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, whose oratorio La Passion de Simone received its French premiere as a chamber adaptation, a performance that stood as a centerpiece of the 2014 Festival Saint-Denis in Paris. Originally debuted in 2006, La Passion de Simone has, over this past year, been re-imagined by Saariaho, adapted specifically for conductor Clément Mao-Takacs’ nineteen-piece Secession Orchestra, vocal quartet, and soprano soloist Karen Vourc’h. This smaller cast, under the stage direction of Aleksi Barrière, provides a more direct and unmediated experience of Saariaho’s sound materials. The expansive tonal force of La Passion de Simone’s first production, an oceanic work for full orchestra, choir, and electronics, has been consolidated but not reduced in the chamber version, its sound colors intensified by a microscopic quality of vision that is perhaps better adapted to the piece’s investigation of human, as well as sonic, interiorities.
Conceived as a “Musical Journey in Fifteen Stations,” the oratorio assumes the form of a contemporary passion play, interpreting the life and thought of the French philosopher Simone Weil. Each of these fifteen stations, which echo the Stations of the Cross, explores a different dramatic feature of Weil’s own Via Dolorosa. An original libretto by French author Amin Maalouf constitutes a majority of the oratorio’s text, supplemented by spoken fragments from Weil’s work.
Despite having expressed reservations about the form early in her career, Saariaho has produced four operatic works since 2000, all in collaboration with Maalouf. It is precisely this desire to work with other artists across mediums that has served as a catalyst for the composer. In La Passion de Simone's original program note, Saariaho describes her collaboration with Maalouf and American theater director Peter Sellars, who first proposed Weil as a possible subject:
Whereas I have always been fascinated by Simone’s striving for abstract (mathematical) and spiritual-intellectual goals, Peter is interested in her social awareness and her political activities. Amin brought out the gaping discrepancy between her philosophy and her life, showing the fate of a frail human being amongst great ideas.
The chamber version of La Passion de Simone does not use Sellars’s staging; rather, a video created by Barrière is projected onto a screen fitted into the west nave’s center arch. Compiled mostly from archival footage of factories and battlefields, the video is intended to represent Weil’s political vocation, portraying her as the social activist, the factory worker, and the resistance fighter.
La Passion de Simone is certainly thorough in its examination of Weil. Conducted across various mediums and “levels of reality” (spiritual–intellectual, social–political, bodily–personal), the result is a multifaceted piece of musical theater from which Weil seems strangely absent. For those familiar with her work, it even feels—at least on its surface—like a conscious betrayal of her.
Perhaps to avoid joining the ranks of male writers who have already reveled too much—suspiciously much—in Weil’s self-debasement as spiritual triumph, Maalouf instead concentrates on the failures, on the dysfunction of her life rather than her deliberate, transcendent death. He organizes the work’s early stations according to the more persistent themes of the philosopher’s own unhappiness: her femaleness, her Jewishness, her shame over having “lame hands.” Vourc’h plays the part of Weil’s “interlocutor”—her “imaginary sister”—singing to our subject directly, making observations like, “You have long believed that it was / necessary, / At all costs, to prevent war,” which are in turn corroborated by Weil’s own writings, read with breathless, languid solemnity by actress Isabelle Seleskovitch, who sits at a desk on a small raised platform at stage right.
Vourc’h essentially serves as a narrator, describing the “hollowed-out features of a lost face”—Simone’s—as they appear in a photograph taken for an identity card worn during the year she spent working in Paris factories. By turns, the soprano laments the conditions of Weil’s early, preventable death from supposed self-starvation in an English hospital at age 34, and chides her for her extreme ideas and the life choices that produced them. This seemingly erroneousness approach, so often taken to Weil’s life and work, becomes more apparent when we imagine it applied to any other great and tormented writer: Nietzsche, for instance, reproved for having neglected his parents (“No doubt you loved them, this mother and father, / But their suffering never held your attention”), or Kafka, for having been “incapable of loving [him]self.” Weil was a religious philosopher, political resistant, and poet, but here she is again recast as a “fragile little sister,” “obstinate elder sister,” a “mystic schoolgirl”; “Little sister, Simone” is the libretto’s refrain. What is most troubling about the text is that more often than not “frail human being” reads as female human being: “Mankind didn’t know / That a woman had sacrificed herself for them . . .” And out of context, all the passages cited directly from Weil’s work do indeed sound like the hollow self-serious pronouncements of a mystic schoolgirl. Her suffering, depicted as tragic folly, a willful martyrdom to impossible, spiritual-intellectual ideals, is offered up as an object of contemplation.
Actually, Vourc’h does much of the contemplating for us, pacing the stage in a tattered dress, calling out for Weil and entreating her. Throughout, the four choral singers remain seated or standing around her, an audience to her bitter eulogy. When her grief reaches frenzied proportions, prompting bouts of writhing and chest-smiting, they set upon her like nurses, holding her up while also restricting her movements, detaining her. Yet there is no suggestion of violence in the choreography; Vourc’h and the quartet move like bodies submerged in water, with slow, drifting, and almost ritualized gestures. At some moments, their dance is so arrested that it seems to compose faintly shifting group images or tableaux, reminiscent of video artist Bill Viola’s series “The Passions.”
In a sense, the libretto’s focus on Weil’s suffering is entirely justified. It was, after all, precisely her experience of physical suffering—plagued as she was from age twenty by intense, incapacitating migraines—that shaped her understanding of human contingency, of the essential “perishability” of whatever physical and mental qualities made a person recognizable to herself and to others. Chris Kraus characterizes Weil as a “performative philosopher” who treated her body as an experimental material. Indeed, Weil’s understanding of human bodies as sheer material was central to her philosophy because, as she saw it, bodies and minds are always subject to the mechanisms of necessity that rule over matter, just as falling objects (and bodies) are to gravity. Maalouf’s libretto concentrates on the first fundamental question, childlike in its simplicity, which functions as a prompt for practically all of Weil’s theological and political writings: How can one be good? Or, more precisely: In such a world as this—of falling bodies in thrall to gravity—how can one be good? The answer Weil arrived at was: by not being at all, or rather by coming to terms with one’s own essential “non-being.” Her religious metaphysics centers on the concept of “decreation,” a spiritual process by which one consents to not be. If mention is made of Weil’s strategic, methodical self-destruction, it is only in the fifteenth station, in the very last passage cited from her work, that we get an oblique reference to decreation, which was after all the true meaning of this sacrifice. This is why the piece seems at first to betray Weil: it forces her into being.
During the sixth station, the photograph taken of Weil for her factory card is projected for several minutes. The libretto likens her image, gaunt and eerie, to a “shroud” and a “deportee / Waiting for impending death.” Seeing it stand out against the cathedral’s architecture like a massive painted icon, one is struck by a spectacular, almost extravagant irony: that perhaps no future prospect would have been more horrifying to Weil, having struggled so long and with such dogged desperation to efface herself, than to see that same struggle dramatized, to be herself recreated on stage for a Parisian audience.
But this irony is not lost on Maalouf either. It is the reason Weil’s imaginary sister and not Weil herself stands at the center of the drama. During sixty-five minutes, Simone Weil is described, impersonated, and catechized in a ceremony perhaps intended to wring dry the tragedy of her life, to exhaust the sensational—often gendered—discourse of sainthood that has always been in interference with her work. Indeed, Weil’s imaginary sister is meant to represent us. As Gustave Thibon, Weil’s friend and editor of Gravity and Grace, writes: “her self was a word that she perhaps succeeded in erasing, but it remained underlined.” In a sense, Maalouf’s libretto also serves to further underline Weil’s erasure. To explain decreation as a process of grace, Weil often had recourse to metaphors of germination. “Our soul,” she writes, “is separated from all reality by a film of egotism, subjectivity, illusion; the germ of Christ deposited by God in our soul, feeds upon it; when it is developed enough, it shatters the soul, causes it to burst, and enters into contact with reality.” Weil believed that, just as in vegetative growth, light as solar energy “overcame” gravity, only supernatural light could, in spite of gravity, “raise Man above matter.” “Except the seed die,” she writes. “It has to die in order to liberate the energy it bears within it, so that with this energy new forms may be developed.” In a 1987 treatise on harmony and timbre, Saariaho quotes from Kandinsky’s The Spiritual in Art: “Form is the external manifestation of inner meaning.” This idea is brought to bear in Saariaho’s music, and if Weil is absent from her own passion, it is as she would have wished it. Her inner meaning manifests not as a shattered life but as the thought that, emerging, shattered it.
The events of Simone Weil’s life offer Maalouf few opportunities for weaving dramatic feature into the oratorio’s libretto. For Weil, the drama of human lives is not obvious—that is, not in the events of years, months, days—but unfolds invisibly, internally, and by the minute. What counts most in a human life, she wrote, is “the way in which each moment is linked to the next and what it costs each person in his or her heart, body, and soul—and above all in the exercise of the faculty of attention—to bring this linking about minute by minute.” Weil believed that it was exclusively through the exercise of the faculty of attention that a person could willingly dispense with the I, with personality, and in so doing begin to build a proper architecture of their own soul, the project she saw as the purpose of all human life.
Stage director Peter Sellars praises Saariaho’s music for its dramatization of “the life of the soul,” of its “inner movement.” Indeed, La Passion de Simone’s dramaturgy resides almost entirely in the music. If Maalouf’s libretto gives us a picture of the frail human being amongst great ideas, the shattered seed, it is Saariaho’s composition that portrays those ideas, abstractly, in movement, the root emerging. Like a time-lapse of seeds swelling and bursting in soil, it suggests the tentativeness of slow-spreading, invisible growth—harmonic stasis—punctuated by abrupt timbral bursts, explosions of a more vivid and seemingly inner substance of sound. The compression of the piece, adapted for chamber performance, only serves to heighten this impression of timbral intimacy.
In an interview given just prior to this debut staging of La Passion de Simone, Saariaho says of her prior reluctance to write for opera that she was opposed to the tendency in contemporary music to “treat the voice as a mere instrument.” Instead, she would “give back to it its primary function: human expression, especially where a text is concerned.” In La Passion de Simone, the vocal writing is for the most part conventionally harmonic, at once intensely emotional and almost insupportably static in tone. Vourc’h indeed sounds—like a natural force—constant, oppressive, magnitudinous; her voice imposes limits, pressing down on all other sound material. In a frequent refrain, the libretto cites Weil’s assertion that “Two powers hold sway / Over the universe . . . / light and gravity / light and gravity” and throughout the piece, this cosmic opposition is translated into music. A struggle between the downward pull of the tonic, of harmonic gravity, and sudden flashes of light that manifests—as Antti Häyrynen writes in the work’s program note—“in ever-shifting colors” : the cold, impalpable glimmering of crotales and glockenspiel, the fused, blade-like timbre of flute and violin seem at times to develop in resistance to and despite the human voices. In this sense, the music does not only refer to the internal life processes described by Weil, the attention’s linking of moments; rather, it forces those moments upon us. We have to link them ourselves, to attend to them minute by minute—in intermittent flickerings of light. It is an experience that is surprisingly painful, costly. Virtually all critics writing about the oratorio’s original 2006 production underline this sense of costliness, the somberness of tone, an overtaxing of both theme and duration.
Like much of Saariaho’s work, La Passion de Simone gives us a view on sound transforming: gradually, imperceptibly, or with a sudden explosive force that feels, precisely, like a liberation of energy—the energy of the root tied up in the seed, as Weil would put it. And it is these few and far-between moments of liberation or release, the externalizing of inner meaning, that determine the piece’s masterfully conceived form; the voice embodies gravity in both the musical, tonal sense and the textual, philosophical sense, expressing Weil’s spiritual notion of gravity through Maalouf’s lyrics: as the earthly circumstances of self (feelings, attributes, attachments) against which Weil struggled in thought.
And here we return to the concept of collaboration. In La Passion de Simone’s ninth station, the narrator observes: “You were never able to say: ‘We are / suffering!’ / You were never able to say ‘we.’” Weil did not believe in we any more than she believed in I. In her notebooks, she wrote: “The collective soul is one-dimensional. It has no architecture. It may acquire one only in the ceremony that reduces it to silence.” This is perhaps also a fitting description of La Passion de Simone: a ceremony that reduces the collective—the collaborative—soul to silence and in so doing provides it with an architecture. The last verse of Maalouf’s libretto reads:
Your grace was liberated
From the gravity of the world.
But the earth where you abandoned us
Still is the kingdom of deceit
Where innocents tremble.
The collective soul, the we or us, is engendered through the act of abandonment, through “our” being collectively abandoned on earth—in Maalouf’s libretto, we are abandoned by Weil and in Weil’s metaphysics: by God. She understands any act of creation as an act of abandonment or “abdication” (insofar as creation is the bringing into being of something that exists apart from oneself). As such, in Weil’s estimation, it is our own state of being the thing apart, of belonging to Creation, that separates us from God. And so, she reasons, to rejoin God we must choose the way of non-being through decreation. She laments that “When I am in any place, I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart . . . If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear . . .”
On the final page of her score for “Notes on Light,” a piece for cello and orchestra, also written in 2006, Saariaho includes a quote from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” suggestive of the fulfillment of Weil’s own decreative wish:
I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
For Saariaho too, the heart of light is silence and the triumph of light over gravity is accomplished only in the shattering of the textures, the surfaces, of sound that contain silence. Just as Weil’s own thought cumulates in the appreciation of a pure, unpopulated silence, what La Passion de Simone describes is not sound emerging out of silence, but the opening of light, of the silence tied up in sound.
Christiane Craig is a writer, translator, and master's candidate in Comparative Literature at Paris IV.
Banner image: Florent Baffi (bass-baritone), seen through an array of lights, on the last day of rehearsal. Courtesy Isabelle Barrière.