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Getting inside a haunting outsider

Times Staff Writer

Simone Weil -- brilliant philosopher and profound teacher, yet terrifyingly inept activist; quirky mystic and saint, yet infuriating martyr -- haunted France during her short life when she acted as her country’s startling, self-appointed social and moral conscience. And she haunts still.

Much of her writing was published only after she wasted away in a London hospital in 1943 at age 34, unwilling to eat as long as the occupied French did not have enough to eat. But her flame burns stronger than ever in argumentative, searing, high-principled, numinous and sometimes shockingly wrong-headed prose. Read her, and she won’t let you alone.

Sunday, the haunting of Simone reached a new height with the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone,” a major offering of Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival and a co-commission with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Set to a poetically elliptical text by Amin Maalouf and intensely staged like a dramatic cantata for solo soprano by Sellars, it was presented in a uniquely haunted Vienna space -- the Jugendstiltheater.

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Part of a large psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of town, this is the site where Nazis performed medical experiments on Jews. Though the theater, designed at the turn of the last century by Otto Wagner, is now sometimes used for adventurous stagings, its ghosts must be ever assuaged. Outside is a grove of electric candles, one in memory for each victim.

“Simone” is the third collaboration by the famed Finnish composer, the eloquent Lebanese-French writer and Sellars. Their first, “L’Amour de le Loin,” one of the two or three most successful new operas of the last decade, is a masterpiece of melancholic love. Their second opera, “Adriana Mater,” which premiered in Paris earlier this year, is an alarming study in violence. With “Simone,” they have attempted to transcend love and violence.

But no one knows what to do with Simone Weil. In a public discussion before the premiere, Saariaho spoke of her fascination with Simone’s spiritual quest. Raised a secular Jew in a dazzlingly intellectual family (her brother was a noted mathematician), Simone was a virulent anti-Semite opposed to the Old Testament as warmongering. Instead she sought a mystical union with a personal Christ who embodied a kind of Gnostic/cabalistic vision, in which room must be made for the Greek gods, Krishna and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

For Maalouf, who has written a number of probing historical novels that relate to modern times, Simone’s life fascinated, this beauty who made herself ugly, this frail intellectual klutz who insisted on working in factories, fighting in the Spanish Civil War and living in poverty. Sellars was drawn to her social activism.

In the end, Saariaho’s oratorio, subtitled “a musical journey in fifteen stations,” follows Simone’s outsider spiritual progress. It also takes the form of contemplation of and dialogue with Simone.

The solo soprano serves as a mythical older sister who identifies with, questions, laments and ultimately embodies Simone. A chorus comments. An offstage reader adds fragments of Weil’s texts (“Nothing that exists is absolutely worthy of love, so we must love that which does not exist”).

The set is a table and a door. Sellars’ staging is elemental, but over Saariaho’s angry objections (she said in the discussion) he added a dancer who is meant to comfort the singer in her pain and also to be another dramatic figure in the reaction to Simone.

Written for Dawn Upshaw, who had to withdraw while she undergoes treatment for breast cancer, “Simone” was performed Sunday by an excellent Finnish soprano, Pia Freund. Her singing was rapt and idiomatic, but the score needs rapture, which is why the L.A. Philharmonic has postponed its January performance of the oratorio, opting to wait until Upshaw is available next season.

Much of the essence of “Simone,” though, lies in Saariaho’s orchestral writing. She uses electronics to aid in producing a sound world of luminous resonances. Hers is a sonic clarity of thought that ideally illuminates Simone’s clarity of thought. Yet Saariaho’s sound, like Simone’s spiritual flights of fancy, has an ineffable, shamanistic quality as well.

The young Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki (who just started as new music director of the prestigious Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris) led the first-rate Viennese new music group Klangforum Wien in an impressively articulated but ferociously determined performance (two very Weilian traits). The chorus was the outstanding Arnold Schoenberg Chor. James F. Ingalls expressively lit the stage.

But nothing about Simone Weil is easy, and this Passion, while it has intimations of greatness, is a challenging, intense 72 minutes that will require some settling in both for listeners and performers. Michael Schumacher was the tender, poignant dancer, but Saariaho may be right that he violates the Passion’s privacy.

“Simone” also needs, I think, a more neutral space -- it goes to the Barbican in London and Lincoln Center, as well as Walt Disney Concert Hall. It definitely needs better amplification than provided Sunday. Radiance felt within reach yet not quite reached.

Without question, though, Simone survives through Saariaho’s “Passion” -- ever troubling and ever necessary. And, of course, ever haunting.

mark.swed@latimes.com


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