A Minimalist Opera in a Minimalist Production

SpainSpain Saariaho, Only the Sound Remains: Meta 4 Quartet, Theatre of Voices / Ivor Bolton (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 23.10.2018. (JMI)

Philippe Jaroussky, Davone Tines, Nora Kimball-Mentzos
in Only the Sound Remains © J. del Real

Tsunemasa/Angel – Philippe Jaroussky
Priest/Fisherman – Davone Tines
Dancer – Nora Kimball-Mentzos

Direction – Peter Sellars
Sets – Julie Mehretu
Costumes – Robby Duiveman
Lighting – James F. Ingalls

The Teatro Real’s second production this opera season marks the premiere of the work in Spain. Only the Sound Remains by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is in fact a co-production of five opera houses: the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, where it premiered in 2016, the Paris Opera, the Finnish National Opera, the Teatro Real and the Canadian Opera Company of Toronto. The work has so far been seen in the first three houses.

Kaija Saariaho is a seasoned composer with three earlier operas to her credit: Amour de Loin (2000); Adriana Mater, which premiered in Paris in 2006; and Emile, which premiered in 2010 in Lyon.

Only the Sound Remains is based upon Ezra Pound’s translations of two Japanese Noh plays, Always Strong and Feather Mantle. In the first, a young lutist who died in the war appears to the priest who invokes his spirit. In the second, a fisherman finds a feathered cape on a tree. The owner appears – an angel who needs the wings to climb to heaven. The fisherman returns them in exchange for a dance in which the angel vanishes, leaving only the sound.

The work is extremely minimalist. There are just two characters, while in the pit there is a string quartet, a trio of additional musicians and a small chorus of four voices. The opera is very repetitive in its construction, and I found it less interesting musically than Amour de Loin.

As with other Saariaho operas, the stage production is by American director Peter Sellars, who has created a minimalist work as well. The stage is a naked and dark space to which a screen painted with abstract figures is added so that it can offer some shadows (of which Sellars is always fond). The costumes are simple and suitable for the two protagonists, and the lighting is appropriate. While the production is more or less attractive, it doesn’t inspire great enthusiasm either.

The musical direction was entrusted to Ivor Bolton, whose work was worthy of praise – there is much to conduct in this work. He drew a fine performance from the Meta 4 Quartet, to which a percussionist, a kantele and a flute were added. The vocal quartet Theater of Voices also performed well.

The voices of the two protagonists were amplified which, I confess, is not to my taste. The characters of Tsunemasa and the Angel were interpreted by French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who was very good, although this is a much simpler character in vocal terms than what Mr. Jaroussky has handled on previous occasions. The Priest and the Fisherman were performed by baritone Davone Tines who was impressive in both vocal and acting terms.

In the second part of the opera they were accompanied by the dancer Nora Kimball-Mentzos.

Teatro Real was at about 70% of capacity, and the audience gave a warm reception to the artists in the final bows.

José M. Irurzun

Leave a Comment