Adriana Mater (World Premiere production), Opéra National de Paris, April 7, 2006
Adriana, the heroine of Kaija Saariaho’s new opera, is a mother who stands by her son, Yonas. The pain and the passion she stood by was his discovery and then his reaction to learning that his father Tsargo the Protector had been absent all his life not because he died a heroic soldier’s death, but because he had raped Adriana and has ever since 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 from which his mother has protected him. 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. Tsargo raped her, having been enraptured since she had danced with him a year before and unable to accept being spurned. She decided to keep the child, knowing and sensing (Je sais et je sens) that although both their blood was mixed together in the child, the child was truly hers and not his. Yonas’s passion goes through its stages, first indignant anger at his mother for lying to him. She replies that he has now become an adult and can know the truth. All along it has been hell to know the ugly truth of his parentage 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 Tsargo has returned to the town. 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 his father, 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? I 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 his father. 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 that 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.
Saariaho’s music 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 describes Adriana’s feelings and at the end 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. The score can be described as 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 d’Assise, 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.
George Tsypin’s sets are 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 it is the same, 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 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 about life. 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 final 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. In the title role Patricia Bardon was a vulnerable and authoritative Adriana. Solveig Kringelborn’s Refka brought the solid sanity required by the mezzo role along with its requisite component of unimaginativeness. Gordon Gietz sang strongly and convincingly in the role of Yonas and acted his part well, carrying its multidimensional uncertainty to the end. Danish bass Stephen Milling was burdened in some ways with the most difficult role as Tsargo, but executed it with great skill. An accomplished Wagnerian, he resembled Fafner in Siegfried when stalked by the young hero with the weapon. Esa-Pekka Salonen achieved the sustained and vigorous reading that his compatriot’s score requires: deft, clear, and tireless.
The work, directed by Peter Sellars, 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 an other than immaculate conception captures the most powerful current of the women’s movement without showy rancor, and above all 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 is now preparing an opera about Simone Weil.