Since its world premiere in 2006 in Vienna, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s peculiar oratorio La Passion de Simonehas been to a number of cities, among them London, Paris, New York and Bratislava. It has now received its Australian premiere as part of Sydney Festival thanks to the ever-enterprising Sydney Chamber Opera, performed here in the chamber version first heard in Bratislava.

La Passion de Simone . Photo © Victor Frankowski 

A challenging work, it’s a 75-minute meditation on the life of Simone Weil, the French philosopher and ascetic who famously died at the age of 34 from self-imposed starvation. Living in England at the time, it’s said she did so in solidarity with her compatriots suffering under Nazi occupation. An intense personality seemingly ripe for dramatisation then, La Passion de Simonefunctions as a kind of passion play divided into 15 stations.

It’s too bad then that Saariaho’s work never quite lives up to the potential of its premise. The score itself is compelling, but dramatic involvement remains at a minimum due to the strangely detached mode in which Weil’s life is explored. Much of this is down to Amin Maalouf’s overearnest libretto,...