An Opera in Seven Scenes
by Kaija Saariaho
Libretto by Amin Maalouf
Directed by Peter Sellars
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Commission of the National Opera of Paris
Dedicated to Gerard Mortier, Artistic Director of the National Opera of Paris
Adriana: Patricia Bardon
Refka: Solveig Kringelborn
Yonas: Gordon Gietz
Tsargo: Stephen Milling
Paris Opéra Bastille
Performance of Friday April 7, 2006
Saariaho’s Adriana Mater
an account by KEN QUANDT
Adriana is a mother who stood by her son. The pain and the passion she stood by was his discovery and then his reaction to learning that his father had been absent all his life not because he died a heroic soldier’s death in war as Tsargo the Protector, but because under color of a soldier he had raped his mother, and ever since had had to hide out on the other side of the river.
In the fourth of seven scenes the son bursts into the house having learned the truth his mother has protected from him all these seventeen years. The conception was indeed not immaculate, but Adriana was just as confused and certain about what was happening to her as Mary was and all mothers are. She decided to keep the child, knowing and sensing (je sais et je sens) though both their blood was mixed together in the child, the child was truly hers and not his (scene three). Tsargo had raped her during the war (scene two). One night he came to her house insisting he be let in to climb out onto her roof and observe the approach of the enemy (“les autres”). But hers was not the tallest house and she guessed he wanted revenge because she had spurned him one fateful night before the war when he came to her house drunk, remembering how she had danced with him at the town festival last year (scene one). It is not because he is poor that she spurns him (as he angrily alleges), but because he is drunk. If he came to her with more certain step she might one day let him sit on her bed. So, during the war he does arrive with the certain military step of a sergeant and makes things right.
Yonas’s passion goes through its stages, first indignant anger at his mother for lying to him. She replies he has now become an adult and can know the truth. All along it has been hell to know and protect it from him. She had thought her blood in him was noble but Tsargo’s was vile, and the vile blood in this innocent child at her breast could make him a villain when he grew up. But now she knows that blood is mute, a mere excuse people make for their passion. Should she have told him when he was four? Eight? Twelve? His indignation turns to anger as indignation always seeks to do, anger directed at the father if ever he should meet him. Next we learn, from Adriana’s sister Refka, that the father has returned to the town (scene five), and Yonas gets a gun and goes out to kill him. Adriana is resigned: he will do what he must, but not what blood dictates. When Yonas finds him (scene six) he first engages him in conversation, the foreplay revenge cannot resist. The very name of Adriana sets Tsargo into reverie, enraging Yonas; who reveals to him that he is his son by Adriana. “Adriana and Yonas! You would have been my life!” Tsargo muses, again enraging Yonas who brandishes the weapon and waits for that last provocation to pull the trigger. “Had you thought to die before seeing your son, then?” he asks, in abject indignation. “See? l see nothing. I have been blind for years,” Tsargo replies. The son remembers for a moment that he would like to be known by his father. This is what he craves and has craved all his life. “I could know you by touching your face,” Tsargo suggests. This he does, slowly. Suddenly Yonas runs off stage ending the scene.
The seventh and final scene places all four characters on stage, not in action as much as speaking directly to the audience and imagining how things could have been otherwise. If only there had not been that dance. The gates of hell opened that night and now they must be closed. Yonas still wishes he had killed him. He deserved to be killed, Adriana starts to say to him, and again he upbraids himself for not carrying it out. But Adriana will be heard. The music stops. She tells her son, “He deserved to die, but you, you did not deserve to kill him. Instead of being avenged, we have been saved. Come let me rest my head on the shoulder of a real man.”
The plot is tight, the dialogue credible and efficient. One thinks often of Jenufa, the surging forward motion of plot and music, the theme of a wanted and unwanted baby, and of Jenufa’s forgiveness. One thinks how one’s struggle to achieve identity and dignity can proudly struggle forever or else yield and accept the identity one already has been given. One remembers that just as a human is able to inflict an amount of pain on his fellow that is greater than he should be able to do, he can also participate in the miracle of raising him to a higher plane by loving him, simply and patiently.
The music of Saariaho is a constant accompaniment of the characters’ feelings, defining itself each moment by changing what it just was, sometimes achieving a distinct rhythmic articulation and climax but often hewing close to what is happening as long as it takes to happen. The clarinet tells us how Adriana is feeling and finally at the end it has a lyric low passage that settles us down after two hours of frenzied and anxious high notes. The tuba blares the self-ignorant grossness of evil human action. Pulse always, bars only sometimes, but stresses always foreseeable. The chorus (fifty or sixty off stage and amplified in this production) reminded me of the chorus in Messiaen’s St François presented here a year and a half ago, sometimes functioning as a Greek chorus echoing the background ideas, and sometimes bursting out with shock at what is transpiring on the stage and within the souls of the audience.
The set is fixed throughout. In the first three scenes, before and during the war, it is a simple domicile on stone block with a domed roof that might recall the high view over roofs in a middle eastern town. From the fourth scene on the war is over and it is the same but in rubble. The block appears at first to be grayish stone but at moments of heightened tension within the characters’ minds it conspires with them to glow, in red during the rape, in yellow during Yonas’s fantasies of revenge, in a sultry sand color during the encounter in the sixth scene between Yonas and Tsargo which is meant to take place at noon, and finally in the gleaming white of alabaster during the final scene, when Adriana reveals to her son and to us what she has learned. Noteworthy also is the play of shadows on the blank rear wall of the stage. In the first scene we see them, projections of the persons of Adriana and Tsango, a mere addition. They do not return until the seventh scene, when Adriana attempts to teach her lesson to Yonas. Her shadow is somehow made to be smaller than his, a good deal smaller, though the two characters on the stage are similar in stature. The small voice of truth always appears weaker than forcefulness, until we hear it, as we do by then.
Voices at the Bastille have a great deficit to overcome; all of them succeeded once we made the adjustment. Bardon as Adriana was vulnerable and authoritative; Kringelborn as Refka brought the solid sanity required by the mezzo role along with its requisite component of unimaginativeness. Gietz as the son was strong and convincing and acted his part well, carrying multidimensional uncertainty to the end. Milling as Tsargo had in some ways the most difficult role and pulled it off with great skill. For what it’s worth he seemed to draw on the resources of the Fafner in Siegfried when during the sixth scene he was stalked by the young hero with the weapon.
Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra achieved the sustained and vigorous reading that the score requires, deft and clear and tireless.
The work is a tremendous success for 2006. It entertains the Western concern with blood feuds without being brought down by it, its revision of the Marian truth in a not immaculate conception captures the most powerful current of the women’s movement without showy rancor, and above all it succeeds to engage these and other obligatory contemporary themes without paying fatal dues to the Minotaur. After this work and her first opera L’Amour de Loin, Saariaho, astoundingly, is now preparing an oratorio about Simone Weil.