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3 February 2021updated 30 Jul 2021 9:36am

The Royal Swedish Opera’s La Passion de Simone: a philosopher’s life

Kaija Saariaho’s opera, which premiered in 2006 in a staging by Peter Sellars, is now available to stream in a revised chamber opera format.

By Rosemary Waugh

Paying homage to the life of Simone Weil, staunch supporter of the impoverished working classes, with opera – today viewed as one of the most bourgeois of art forms – might seem initially like an odd decision. But the French philosopher, mystic and political activist was actually a passionate fan of opera and classical music. In a letter written from Florence in 1937, Weil shared her delight in a performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, writing that the “conducting was beyond all praise”, before later raving about Bach, Monteverdi and Rossini.

Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone – which premiered in 2006 in a staging by Peter Sellars and is now available to watch in its revised chamber opera format on OperaVision – is specifically inspired by one of the composers Weil so strongly admired during her Italian trip. Taking its lead from Bach’s Passions, and the passion play tradition more generally, Saariaho’s collaboration with the librettist Amin Maalouf comprises 15 stations, each focusing on a different aspect of Weil’s extra- ordinary life and output.

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Accompanied by the Royal Swedish Orchestra, soloist Anne Sofie von Otter sings the narrator, a role that slides between voicing the concerns of an imaginary sibling of Weil and commenting on her actions in a more distanced manner. The Royal Swedish Opera Chorus provide intermittent echo to the mezzo-soprano, while electronic recordings of Weil’s own words – voiced by Dominique Blanc – occasionally punctuate the passages.

Saariaho’s strength as a contemporary composer is creating deep, polyphonic wells of sound, often combining orchestral and electronic aspects – the critic Alex Ross has described her music as “oceanic”. Here, she opens with a barrage of sound that brings to mind the mechanistic clack and shriek of the factory floor, recalling Weil’s time spent working in various French factories. This later fades to elegiacally soft chimes, a liberal use of silences, and yearning wind instruments. Von Otter’s crystalline vocals interject an icy line of longing and painful beauty into the mix.

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Throughout, there is a sense of intense foreboding. The mass of teetering tones gathers into an emotional wobble of too many thoughts, too many ideas, too many hurdles to overcome.

If this is her inner life as rendered musically, then it certainly seems being Simone Weil was not all that easy, or all that fun. Which, indeed, it probably wasn’t. Beset by health problems from an early age, Weil suffered intense and persistent headaches, plus severe fatigue and general ill health not helped by her choice to work and suffer alongside those working the hardest and suffering the most. In fact, that letter from Italy stands out as one of the few times she experienced pure, unadulterated joy from worldly pleasures.

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But while the Finnish composer’s score forges a link with the human Weil, Maalouf’s libretto sleeks its way around the edges of the enigmatic writer ­without ever fully connecting to her interior life, motivations or acts. There is something admirable about eschewing a ­simple birth-to-death narrative, especially when Weil’s biography – ­featuring stints working alongside anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and for the Free France government in London – sounds like the stuff of myth and legend without any extra work required.

Yet Maalouf’s choice to tell her life story through a series of conjectures about her motives, and to flit from one brief allusion to a biographical event to another, often seems irritatingly more like an insight into his mind than Weil’s.

The reduction of Weil’s extensive writings to a small collection of aphorisms also doesn’t help bring us closer to her compellingly complex body of work. But it’s the opera’s ending – an elongated sequence declaring Weil’s martyrdom – that abandons any attempt to imagine her as a multifaceted figure. La Passion de Simone leans heavily on the theory that Weil deliberately starved herself to death in solidarity with the people starving in Occupied France. This cause of death is disputed: Weil had been recently diagnosed with tuberculosis and was in a very weak condition, and it’s unclear whether she ended up unable to eat entirely by choice or from physical degeneration.

Given her mysticism, and her ­powerful connection to the Catholic church, it may well be tempting to emphasise Weil’s Christ-like qualities, but it also feels ­awkward given her own criticisms of ­personal fame and individualistic gain. And in the case of La Passion de ­Simone, ­being saintly simply makes her less human.

“La Passion de Simone” is available to stream for free on operavision.eu until 16 July 2021

La Passion de Simone 
Royal Swedish Opera

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy