Saariaho’s “Émilie” makes triumphant New York debut at Lincoln Center Festival
Culture over nature, mind over body, spirit over sensation: more than a quarter-century ago, feminist thinkers showed how these and other hierarchical pairs of ideas have been used in philosophy and literature to prop up the most insidious hierarchy of all: man over woman. Having a womb was thought to be irreconcilable with reason and to trigger derangement and hysteria (from the Greek hustera, “womb”).
Émilie, the 2010 opera by Kaija Saariaho that had its triumphant New York premiere on Thursday as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, undermines many of these dualities and myths. The historical woman who inspired the opera was Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706–49). A physicist, mathematician, and writer best known for her translation with commentary of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, she also wrote a tract in praise of the social benefits of pleasure: a subversive notion in a culture long guided by the Biblical teachings that labor (both birth and toil) should take place “in sorrow” because of woman’s primal disobedience.
The title of the opera, with a libretto in French and English by Amin Maalouf, drops the heroine’s patronymic and married name, a first clue that listeners will meet this remarkable woman on her own terms. Émilie is a monodrama: for roughly eighty minutes, we see and hear the title character holding forth on science, death, and other weighty matters. The voices of her lovers (Voltaire and the poet Saint-Lambert, the father of the child she is carrying) are heard fleetingly, but only as disembodied echoes of her own.
The character Émilie’s most rapturous utterance concerns neither her baby nor her man but is reserved for the title of Newton’s monumental treatise, which uncloaked the workings of the cosmos. And while her translation was in one sense a derivative undertaking, the historical Émilie’s honing of Newton’s work helped shape Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity some 150 years later.
The opera takes place during the final nights of the title character’s life. Soon to give birth, she fears that delivery will kill her before she has completed her translation. (In real life Émilie wrote of this dread and died less than a week after her child was born.) She looks back on her life and work, her loves, and the liberal, unconventional education that she received from her father.
Ensemble ACJW under John Kennedy gave a vivid reading of Saariaho’s iridescent music (for a chamber orchestra of about twenty-five players with occasional electronic enhancements). Throughout the opera, the score glistens with color and light—two concepts of abiding interest to the scientist Émilie. The opening scene, “Forebodings,” layers icy harpsichord pinpricks over trilling winds, uneasy marimba figures, and the pullulating whir of the strings, which dive repeatedly into swooning chromatic sighs. These motifs recur throughout the opera, especially in the final tableau, when the title character, proud and ambitious, ponders with anguish the possibility of oblivion, “the vertigo of unconsciousness.” Fire—the burning of the sun in the heavens and of the hunger for knowledge and fulfillment within Émilie—flickers in the almost toneless hissing of flutes. As Émilie contemplates death, desolate arpeggios sound over the metallic drone of the harpsichord.
The vocal writing for Émilie runs the gamut from speech to Sprechgesang to bold, arching phrases in the highest reach of the soprano voice. The musical texture of the opera also include the wild, resolute scratching of Émilie’s pen, the phallus-like tool so long denied the sex taught to be seen and not heard and certainly never read.
Elizabeth Futral, who performed the opera’s American premiere last year at the Spoleto Festival, seemed fitfully stretched to her vocal limits in the most energetic parts of her role, but sang and acted with steadfast commitment and expressive power. Her enunciation in English was crystalline, in French somewhat less so. But how beautifully Futral summoned cool, pearly tones for her meditations on the moon, and how seductively her voice ripened and slid as she recalled her nights of passion with her beloved Saint-Lambert.
The thoughtful production by Marianne Weems of the media and theatrical ensemble the Builders Association, with sets by Neal Wilkinson, video designs by Austin Switser, lighting by Allen Hahn, sound design by Dan Dobson, and costumes by Claudia Stephens, placed the title character in her chamber with a writing desk and a settee. She was surrounded by transparent screens, triangles and parallelograms, on which imagery ranging from scientific diagrams and a fetal ultrasound to Émilie’s own haunted, questioning face were projected. The flickering candles that appeared again and again evoked lumières (enlightenment), the fragility of life, and the many kinds of fire that burned in Émilie. At opera’s end the universe seemed to swirl around her: the physical world that she, a woman, embodied and also elucidated.
Twice in the opera Émilie broke into grandly overdetermined quotes from poems that inspired countless operas: Vergil’s Aeneid (in which the wise monarch Dido goes mad for love) and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (in which the upright paladin Roland does the same). Émilie crafted a different lot for herself, in which ardor and achievement nourished each other, whether in the brainy intimacies that she shared with Voltaire or in the gusto with which she carried out her research. Bringing forth her child, the fruit of her passion, did kill her, but watching and hearing Saariaho’s enthralling Émilie we understand that biology need not be destiny and that a woman’s place can also be among the keenest and most expansive minds of all time.
Émilie will be repeated Saturday and Sunday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The Lincoln Center Festival 2012 continues through August 5. lincolncenterfestival.org; 212.721.6500.