A lute player, a priest, a fisherman, and an angel are the diverse central characters populating Kaija Saariaho’s operatic double bill Only the Sound Remains, which will have its U.S. premiere at the Rose Theater November 17–18 as part of this year’s White Light Festival. The opera, based on a pair of centuries-old Japanese Noh plays, visits Lincoln Center after its successful world premiere in Amsterdam, described as “sensual and evocative” by the Financial Times. In Only the Sound Remains, the stories of the aforementioned musician, fisherman, and seraph unfold in achingly suspenseful slow motion. These Japanese tales seem to transcend time and place, while being highlighted by exquisite musical and visual elegance. Saariaho’s atmospheric drones and unusual orchestration, including kantele (a traditional Finnish instrument whose strings are plucked) and electronics, provide the sonic backdrop for the characters’ shape-shifting and supernatural encounters in this production overseen by maverick director Peter Sellars. Audience-goers are sure to be swept up not only in Sellars’ spare and haunting images, but also in the glitter and glow of Saariaho’s music.
Saariaho, a pioneer of spectralism whose music sparkles with a rich, often overwhelming array of timbres and colors, has been writing for decades, but in recent seasons has enjoyed increasing acclaim in America. In her early years, the Helsinki-born artist experimented with computer-assisted composition, electronics, and the morphing of dense masses of sound. Two years ago her hallucinatory, romantic opera L’Amour de Loin (2000) was the first piece composed by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in more than a century. Saariaho wrote Only the Sound Remains for a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Dutch National Opera in 2016.
Only the Sound Remains is based on two ancient Noh dramas translated by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa in the early 20th century. Developed in Japan during the 14th century, Noh is arguably the oldest preserved performance style. These musical dramas involve not only sound and storytelling but also masks, costumes, and dance. Their plots frequently incorporate supernatural elements, such as ghosts and human-to-spirit transformations. In the first of the two plays Saariaho selected as her foundation, Tsunemasa (Always Strong), a solider dies a violent death and returns as a spirit, seeking to regain his previous happiness as a lute player. The second, Hagoromo (The Feather Mantle) tells the story of a fisherman who finds a magical, celestial robe. These mysterious tales are the perfect match for Saariaho’s contemplative music. Rather than the conventional operatic experience, in which volleying voices propel scenes of sex, betrayal, and death, the double bill of Only the Sound Remains fosters an unexpected and unhurried listening experience.
For the White Light Festival presentation of this stunning work, countertenor Philippe Jaroussky will reprise his roles as Spirit/Angel, which Saariaho tailored expressly for him. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines will also reprise his roles as the priest and the fisherman; the contrast between the voices of Jaroussky and Tines creates a musical tension underscoring the exciting dynamic in the plot and staging. As the dancer, Nora Kimball-Mentzos will contribute a kinetic and visual embodiment of the musical and narrative mood. According to Bachtrack, her ethereal grace “dazzled the audience” at the premiere. The players include Eija Kankaanranta on kantele, creating a fragile yet kaleidoscopic sound. Although Saariaho had never composed for kantele, she was drawn to the instrument, which she referred to as “a Finnish version of the Japanese koto,” during the compositional process. Flutist Camilla Hoitenga and percussionist Heikki Parviainen will add layers to the sound world, as will electronics, the string quartet Meta4, and the vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, led by Ernest Martínez Izquierdo.
All of these elements meld into a taut, glacial beauty in Peter Sellars’s production. He has directed several of Saariaho’s operas over the past two decades, and at this point is so familiar with her sound worlds that he can effortlessly complement them with tableaux and gestures. Robby Duiveman’s costumes offer a minimalist, modernized update on traditional Noh fashions. Gauzy white robes emphasize the otherworldliness of the stories as the characters walk around contemporary visual artist Julie Mehretu’s elegant sets within the phantasmagoric lights and shadows by lighting designer James F. Ingalls.
According to a review in Classical Voice America, this production of Only the Sound Remains is essential viewing: “[I]n addition to inspiring compelling performances from the cast, Sellars has helped conceive a multi-dimensional, collaborative work that brought out new dimensions from the text and score.” This multisensory experience is sure to captivate the eyes and ears—and spirit—of White Light Festival attendees in November.
Rebecca Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in New York City. She studies ethnomusicology as a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.