The American premiere of a contemporary opera is a rare event. Spoleto has spoiled us by fearlessly braving one almost every year, when even major opera companies in New York or San Francisco are ‘careful’ with modern opera, featuring new works quite sparingly. Contemporary, of course, doesn’t necessarily suggest stylistically daring or experimental. Opera, by definition, is a risky and complicated affair, not to mention expensive. Many composers will wisely play it safe by cautiously and consciously alluding to the great operatic past. On the other end of the spectrum, experimental works do exist, pushing all kinds of limits and envelopes, only to end up in the dusty drawer of obscurity.

Then there’s Saariaho. A vibrant mid-career composer at the top of her game, who a little over a decade ago felt adventurous enough to try her hand at composing opera. It proved to be a good bet for her. Her first attempt, L’Amour de Loin, has enjoyed several productions and won Saariaho the Grawemeyer Prize, one of the most prestigious awards a living composer can receive. Saariaho’s take on the genre is ambitious, progressive, and challenging, yet also respectful, measured, functional, and well-planned. Most importantly, her operatic music is not stylistically far from the sound world of her orchestral and chamber music, a smart decision that has allowed her to be in control of her elements. Her latest collaboration with librettist Amin Maalouf is Émilie, a one-woman show in nine scenes, based on the life of renaissance-woman Émilie Marquise du Châtelet (1706-49), scientist, philosopher, gambler, and free spirit.

An ambitious and expertly executed production, the U.S. premiere of Émilie was without a doubt a resounding success. Director Marianne Weems created a stunning visual feast for the eyes, mirroring the composer’s sonic explorations into the character’s mind. The imagery projected on geometric scrims effectively contrasted the careful stage activity, adding lush textures and organically blending with the music and beautifully executed vocal part.

We get to know Émilie in her last days, emotionally charged and haunted by premonitions that the end is near, filled with nostalgia for the past and angst about the fate of her unborn child and her unfinished book. The character’s tempestuous inner state contrasts sharply with the absence of substantial external activity. In fact, Émilie, a lone but powerful stage presence, tells her story from within the depths of her inner self, through monologue and letter-writing. It’s important to realize that the opera takes place in suspended time, outside of a traditional teleological narrative. The music reveals the character’s inner universe. The listener is placed inside her mind and taken by the composer on a guided tour of sorts. Émilie’s thoughts go in circles, obsessively revisiting the issues that haunt her. Is this not how thoughts enter and exit our conscious mind?

The character is painted in a realistic manner: flawed, self-absorbed, brilliant, and unapologetic, with her intellectual pursuits, emotional state, and philosophical explorations twirling around in a stream-of-consciousness. It’s the music that allows the listener to make sense of it, if there is sense to be made. The composer sets in motion sonic textures of various thickness, timbral quality, and orientation, each one assigned to a trait or side of Émilie’s complex persona. The composition navigates through them by using either the wonderfully crafted vocal line, quite traditional in nature, or the strangely haunting harpsichord arpeggios, remnants of a stretched-out Scarlatti tune that is never quite completed but omnipresent nevertheless. These two linear devices, the vocal part and the harpsichord, are also our only window into the era of the character.

Perhaps the most powerful tool in Saariaho’s arsenal is the process of magnification. She distorts and shifts scale and point of view, not only suspending time in the temporal dimension but also in the musical and visual levels as well. Émilie’s quill is amplified, transforming her handwriting into an instrumental solo of sorts, loud enough to be heard over the orchestra, which accompanies with transparent harmonies. The quill scratching sounds are imitated by noisy sounds from the orchestra and eventually absorbed into it. Similarly, the harpsichord’s haunting ostinato-like droplets are, at times, amplified and dispersed around the hall. At other times, the harpsichord migrates to the metal percussion and gets embedded into the orchestral texture.

Equally impressive is the composer’s treatment of the recurring obsessions of the character with color and death. Émilie explains how color is our perception of frequency, and the composer takes that to a sonic level, where orchestral color is an expression of frequency that can be analyzed and researched. This compositional technique is known as spectralism, an aesthetic that Saariaho has been interested in since the 1980s. Hence violet, indigo, blue, and blood red become textures, seamlessly woven into the fabric of the piece. Another association that literally gets lost in translation, but is quite important in Émilie, is that of light and fire (both feu in French), which constantly turn into one another. Émilie studied the sun and challenged the beliefs of her times about its nature and gravitational pull.

Death, an omnipresent theme, is treated in a more traditional yet brilliant way by the composer. The sound of death is a downward glissando (life slipping away?), appearing in the strings, the trombone, and the horn throughout the opera, sometimes overtly, other times purposefully hidden in thick texture, almost always there. In the last scene, Émilie lets out three sighs (another glissando of sorts), and finally the vocal part overtly lets death out into the open. One can’t help but make the association with the traditional musical depictions of death in the baroque era as a descending line, as in Purcell’s Dido’s Lament.

Electronic processing of the voice and the harpsichord adds an interesting dimension to the sonic palette of Émilie. Vocal modeling (designed by Christophe Lebreton), allows the singer to harmonize (in this case with the voices of Voltaire, her father, and her unborn daughter) by applying data captured from her voice to a model of a male or child voice in real time, generating additional voices, which are then mixed in with the live singer. The effect is haunting and worked seamlessly, tended to by sound designer Dan Dobson and assistant conductor Alexander Kahn.

Elizabeth Futral’s portrayal of the title role was inspired, carefully crafted, and technically flawless. Futral is a commanding presence, able to sustain focus, attention, and vocal stamina throughout the 80-minute marathon piece that has no room for errors of any kind. She is a great actress, and her timing and emotional involvement were stylistically appropriate, as was her vocal production: full, strong, always on pitch, and without too much vibrato. Futral does contemporary opera very well, and I hope she carries on along that path.

John Kennedy led with gusto and purpose. He was very sensitive to the singer’s breathing and timing and drew a great performance out of the young ensemble.

The design and execution of the visual element was new for this American premiere of the opera, and more fitting in my opinion than the European production. Minimal set and costume design act as a tabula rasa, bringing to life an elaborate world of projected still and moving images. Like the music, the projections were conceived as an extension of the character’s mind. A live camera behind a mirror on the set took snapshots of Émilie’s face feeding them back in sepia tones, along with images of her original handwriting and geometrical designs — some of them initiated by Futral tracing lines in space. Particularly effective was the use of color, which at times consumes the stage and the character. Black-and-white looped film sequences added an interesting rhythmic counterpoint to the music. When she refers to her pregnancy, an ultrasound image is projected on a scrim toward the back of the stage. The synergy between the visual and aural elements was organic and technically flawless, with one minor exception. The angular shape of some of the projection panels — meant to look like light-refracting prisms — was a bit distracting once the visual focus got away from geometry.

Saariaho has created not only a niche for herself, but also a fresh approach to the operatic genre, contemporary without being watered down, maintaining technical mastery and stylistic integrity while respecting the conventions and traditions of the genre. She is paving the way for more operatic works that can be relevant, accessible, and real.

Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is Assistant Professor of Composition at the College of Charleston

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