Kaija Saariaho - Only the Sound Remains
Dutch National Opera, 2016
André de Ridder, Peter Sellars, Philippe Jaroussky, Davone Tines, Nora Kimball-Mentos, Heleen Koele, Marian Dijkhuizen, Albert van Ommen, Gilad Nezer
Nationale Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam - 15 March 2016
The few indications of what you could expect from the new opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho suggested that it was going to be quite 'arty' in conception. The fact that the piece was to be based on two Japanese Nôh dramas adapted and directed by Peter Sellars certainly prompted this impression and expectations of slowness and paucity of drama were indeed met at the 2016 World Premiere of Only the Sound Remains in Amsterdam. Where the work exceeded all expectations however was in the richness of the musical language that Saariaho employed with a minimum of instruments, and in how successfully it expressed the inner meaning of the work.
When you are dealing with Nôh drama, that is obviously the most important aspect to get across. Japanese Nôh theatre, the Dutch National Opera's promotional material told us "was born from the Buddhist idea that light is concealed largely in darkness, so as not to blind mere mortals." The conceptual approach to the subject then is a sound one, in more than one sense of the word. Reduced down to their simplest form, symbolism largely taking the place of any representational view of the dramatic staging, it's indeed only the sound that remains as a way of delving into the darkness that separates mortals from the true light on the other side of the veil.
That's very high concept and somewhat airy-fairy, so let's deal with the more objective reality of what is represented on the stage in the two short operas. Both of the Nôh dramas deal with a contact that is established between a mortal and a being from "the other side". In 'Always Strong', a Buddhist priest evokes the spirit of the legendary warrior Tsunemasa during a ceremony in his honour. Tsunemasa's ghost is drawn back by the offering of a lute that was a gift from the Emperor, the warrior appearing in the form of a shadow that eventually disappears leaving only the sound of his voice remaining behind. In the second story 'Feather Mantle', a fisherman finds the feather robe of an angel, and only agrees to return it if the angel will agree to perform a celestial dance in exchange.
There is not really any greater complexity to the dramas than is outlined above, and not really any great sense of meaning that you can take from the descriptions or indeed the libretti for the works alone. What is important, as much in opera as in Nôh drama, is the essence of the performance itself, and the clue to the nature of art as a medium of communication with "the other" is in the works themselves. It's a musical instrument, a lute, that permits the Priest to hear the voice from the spirit world, and it's through the dance of an angel that a humble fisherman is able to see beyond it to experience a vision of the waxing and waning of the moon. Sellars' direction keeps the works as simple as that, with little use of props and only two or three figures on the largely bare stage, with only a thin veil and lighting/shadows used to show the separation between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Watching Only the Sound Remains, I was reminded of another recent new opera, Georg Friedrich Haas' Morgen und Abend which premiered at the Royal Opera House last year, but only in as far as how Sellars similarly reduces the dramatic content in his libretto to deal with a subject that lies outside normal human experience. Like Morgen und Abend - although the musical approach is very different (the range of modern music far wider than most suspect) - Only the Sound Remains also attempts to extend the range of music drama, using new sounds and techniques to describe something that mere language and a dramatic construct alone cannot hope to reach; an attempt to grasp a sense of the other.
Kaija Saariaho's music is the vital element that establishes the connection to the spiritual side in both works, and it is really is something quite astonishing. The music is performed by a small seven-piece ensemble that consists of a string quartet, percussion, flute and Finnish kantele harp. The string quartet, and perhaps the percussion as well, creates a kind of an ambient atmospheric drone background mood music that could be said to be representative of the physical world. The more expressive exploration of the light on the other side is achieved mainly through the soft flow of the flute and the extraordinary otherworldly plucked string sounds of the kantele. More than the choice of instruments, it's the incredible way that they interact that establishes the connection between the physical world and the spiritual. The overall impact and richness of this sound world is mesmerising, Saariaho enlarging the palette of sound she can achieve using these acoustic instruments alone, with little need this time for the use of electronics.
Electronics were used only noticeably in one or two places in the second piece, and mainly then on the voice. The use of the singing voice is evidently another hugely important element of the overall soundscape here and again Saariaho's writing for it in Only the Sound Remains is just extraordinary. Both pieces are written for only two singers on the stage; a baritone for the priest and the fisherman; a countertenor for the ghost and for the angel (with a dancer doubling the role). Here alone the desired sound is fully realised with Davone Tines integrating with the earthier sounds of the physical world and Philippe Jaroussky's countertenor soaring to reach that otherworldly level. A quartet of singers in the raised orchestra pit however also forms part of that vital function of connecting the two planes in a kind of narrator role, even taking a performance role mirroring gestures on the stage.
Although the two works like the two worlds they explore remain separate, there is of course much that connects them and Sellars' libretto, along with his on-stage visual clues and Saariaho's dynamic musical expression of the light and dark, help bring out the underlying commonalities in the works and the message that lies within them. The interaction that occurs in both plays suggests an answer to the question of why there isn't a stronger bond between the two worlds on either side of the veil. The ghost of Tsunemasa reliving the horror of the wars and the angels held earthbound by human doubts, show that those on the other side tend to come off badly when they come into contact with the physical world. If they leave any trace behind in the world, only the sound that remains and, when expressed like this in music, in poetry and dance, it's the closest thing we have to heaven on earth.