The story begins in Malaga, when a young local musician, Manuel Francisco Fenollosa, enlisted in 1838 in a US frigate to avoid having to fight in the first Carlist war. There he continued his musical career, was an active abolitionist and composed even a Anthem of emancipation. He married and settled in Salem (Massachusetts), where his son Ernest was born in 1853, who would become one of the most important and respected sinologists and Japanese, the authentic father of Orientalism. After his death in 1908, his widow delivered her numerous unpublished writings and translations to the poet Ezra Pound, "il miglior fabbro", As he would call it years later T. S. Eliot in the dedication of The Waste Land. Among them were several translations of traditional pieces of the Japanese noh theater, some of which were initially published in 1916. Two, Tsunemasa Y Hagoromo, are those that have inspired the birth of the opera bimembre Only the sound remains, of the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, which now reaches the Teatro Real de Madrid, one of its co-producers.
That first edition had a luxury editor and prologue: Certain noble works of Japan. From the manuscripts of Ernest Fenollosa, chosen and finalized by Ezra Pound, with an introduction by William Butler Yeats. The Nobel Prize for Irish Literature claimed that, inspired by these works, he had invented "a form of drama, distinguished, indirect and symbolic, without the need of crowds or the press to pay for its costs: an aristocratic form". And this is what he has done, in a way, displaying an overflowing talent and wisdom, Kaija Saariaho, an already experienced operatic who here bets for recostar to the genre in the divan of East and West to propose us a show "distinguished, indirect and symbolic, "intimate, naked, reflective, almost courtly, of which, as spectators, we can not help but feel privileged to be able to see and hear it, even in a grand nineteenth-century setting.
Only the sound remains
Music by Kaija Saariaho. Philippe Jaroussky, Davóne Tines, Quartet Meta 4, Theater of Voices, Heikki Parviainen, Eija Kankaanranta and Camilla Hoitenga. Musical direction: Ivor Bolton. Stage direction: Peter Sellars. Teatro Real, until November 9.
Only the sound remains ("Only the sound remains", a quote taken from the first work, Tsunemasa) is not, of course, an opera to use. To begin with, there is no orchestra, but only seven instrumentalists in the pit; neither chorus, although it acts as a vocal quartet; and on the stage sing only two soloists, a countertenor and a baritone, in addition to the performance of a dancer who is assigned an important symbolic value in Hagoromo, more accessible but less compact than Tsunemasa. Everything is condensed to the maximum, essentialized: diverse flutes (soprano, contralto, bass, piccolo), a small arsenal of 16 percussion instruments, three types of kantele, the Finnish national instrument sung in the Kalevala (of 5 and 15 strings and of concert, the latter provided with damper), and a string quartet, in addition to the precise electronic manipulation of voices and instruments by means of reverberations, delays, spatialization or the use of the harmonizer.
There are frequent oriental details in the instrumental writing, the kantele is a distant cousin of the Japanese koto, the flutes emulate at times the nohkan and the percussion is almost omnipresent, but never interfere or subjugate or entangle. There is no attempt to emulate the noh theater, but to drink from his spirit so that Saariaho gives free rein to his characteristic post-impressionist style, letting the voices (in English, for the first time in an opera of his) express the text in a way diaphanous In the latter, both Philippe Jaroussky and Davóne Tines are masters, but the first far surpasses the second in the millimeter precision with which he executes each note or rushes each interval jump. The French countertenor, as spirit and as an angel, makes the work his own with total naturalness in a performance full of restraint, while the American baritone (a paradigmatic example of the type of singers that Peter Sellars likes) is very convincing in the scenic , but something less in the musical.
Sellars reduces the scenography to a minimum (three painted canvases, plays of lights and shadows, a lot of darkness) and moves like a fish in water in this intercultural and interracial dialogue impregnated with oriental philosophy, so akin to his own beliefs. Theirs is also a proposal in which nothing is left over and in which the suggestion about the explanation prevails, what is hidden about what is shown. Ivor Bolton reveals a facet hitherto unknown in the Teatro Real, directing strictly contemporary music with less effusiveness than usual and striving to fit and move the pieces of the very complex game of chess devised by Saariaho. But the biggest deserving of praise are the members of the Meta4 Quartet (well known in Madrid for the numerous concerts offered here in recent years in a vast repertoire that ranges from Haydn to Fernández Guerra), which make the extraordinarily difficult easy, just as it happens with the four portentous voices of Theater of Voices, to which Saariaho makes hiss, vocalize, whisper, whisper, emit sounds of precise metric but indeterminate height and, of course, sing. Peter Sellars makes them even gesture by moving his arms. The contribution of both quartets, far superior in all respects to those who premiered the opera in Amsterdam in 2016, is transcendental and any praises fall short to account for the degree of sensitivity, technical perfection and affinity with the evanescent and reverberating sound world of Saariaho of which they show gala and others. In their hands and their voices, passages like the instrumental interlude or the episode The spirit plays, of Tsunemasa, for example, they are transformed into small rhythmic, harmonic and timbral portents.
No less meritorious is the performance of the kantelista Eija Kankaanranta, who is in charge of a part of the maximum virtuosity and demand, almost concertante at times: it is hard to believe that you can play what is written in the score with this Finnish version of a simple zither , whose strings have to be pressed with the fingers, but punctually also with drumsticks. Interestingly, this is the first stellar appearance of the Finnish instrument by antonomasia in the work of the very Finnish Saariaho. Dazzling is also the domain of its different instruments that demonstrate the flutist Camilla Hoitenga and the percussionist Heikki Parviainen, compatriots of the composer and good connoisseurs, also, of the specificities of their language. That everyone salute together at the end (including Ivor Bolton, as one more), without divisms, without individualities, gives an idea that we are facing the fruit of a more collective work than ever. Saariaho was the only one to receive solo applause, but it is the least that can be granted after having devised this perfect dramatic-musical framework that continues to resonate in our heads after leaving the theater.
No one should be suspicious of a show already seen in Amsterdam, Helsinki and Paris, and that after Madrid can be seen in New York, in which, to recover the verses that open the Divan Goethe, "north and west and south are shattered" and that encourages us to "flee to the pure East to savor the air of the patriarchs." We are before an operatic diptych that radiates purity and that in many respects recalls the first operas born in Italy and, taking things even further, to the Greek theater that its creators wanted to emulate. Fenollosa wrote, in reference to the noh theater, that "a form of drama, as primitive, as intense and almost as beautiful as the ancient Greek drama in Athens, still exists in the world." Saariaho has evoked it freely and masterfully in these two encounters between the human being and the supernatural that pose a journey from darkness to light, the latter a recurrent concept in his compositions. Seeing this opera, and nobody should miss the privilege of being wrapped by it, we would do well to feel like Renaissance princes, or as Japanese emperors.