Since its world premiere in 2006 in Vienna, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s peculiar oratorio La Passion de Simone has 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 Simone functions 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, a criticism which has dogged the piece since its premiere. Calling for the soprano soloist to act as narrator as well as an imagined sister to Weil and Weil herself, a chorus and spoken excerpts from the philosopher’s texts underpin and interject her musings.

La Passion de Simone. Photo © Victor Frankowski 

It’s obvious that both Saariaho and Maalouf have attempted to preserve the contradictions and unknowability of Weil, wary of narrative oversimplification. Frustratingly, they fall into this trap anyway, the audience essentially receiving a summary of Weil’s life as refracted through multiple voices, none of which actually present divergent viewpoints nor lead to a deeper understanding of her values or experiences. What emerges is an uncritical championing of Weil, leaving unexplored fruitful narrative tensions such as what it means for someone of affluence to perform acts of self-abnegation in solidarity with those less fortunate.

Thankfully there are compensations. As conducted by SCO’s Artistic Director Jack Symonds, the orchestra of 19 brings Saariaho’s bristling, often beautiful score to vivid life. Bearing the composer’s affection for thick textures and luxurious orchestral colour, it’s also intentionally short on climax, constantly receding into a subtler lyricism. Showing admirable restraint, Symonds resists giving the music an exaggerated forward propulsion to pep things up. Instead, he spins Saariaho’s sinuous, raw lines with formidable precision, but doesn’t hold back when the odd orchestral effect is required. Particularly impressive is his handling of the stabbing brass and percussive intensity of stations five and six. Depicting the relentless, dehumanising nature of factory work, it gives way to a mournful oboe solo eloquently dispatched by Jasper Ly, Symonds pulling off this tricky transition with ease. Special mentions also go to double bassist Kirsty McCahon, her characterful playing giving Saariaho’s more serene passages an insistent edge, and the chorus, comprised of four members from The Song Company – Susannah Lawergren, Jessica O’Donoghue, Owen Elsley and Mark Donnelly. Their singing is idiomatic and perfectly attuned to Saariaho’s sound world.

La Passion de Simone. Photo © Victor Frankowski 

Happily, the creative team has realised Saariaho’s work to a similarly high standard. Having typically been seen in productions by the composer’s frequent collaborator Peter Sellars, his trademark idiosyncratic gestures seem woven into the piece itself. However, with acclaimed Sydney Theatre Company Resident Director Imara Savage at the helm, such associations are swiftly left at the door. Eschewing the more traditional opera staging, she has opted instead for something verging on the art installation, making the strong decision to have Jane Sheldon interact with video footage of herself. Depicted as Weil, this recorded Sheldon is mesmerising, seemingly gargantuan and tiny at the same time. Video artist Mike Daly has achieved something truly powerful, representing Weil’s physical and mental burdens with economy but haunting beauty. It’s complemented by Elizabeth Gadsby’s set and costume design, establishing a visual language appropriate to an interrogation of Weil’s asceticism. With her cropped hair and beige shift, Sheldon looks for all the world like an icon in the flesh, while the sparsely dressed performance area with rice pile, machinery and video backdrop work together to evoke a threshold space to which the audience is given temporary access. It’s all tied together by Alexander Berlage’s supremely sensitive lighting and Bob Scott’s sound design.

At the centre of it all, Sheldon brings her usual commitment and intelligence. If there’s a criticism to be made about Savage’s production, it’s that the choice to have the soprano with her back to the audience throughout the piece adds yet another layer of distance between subject and viewer. However, Sheldon is a natural performer, her quivering back and balled fists conveying plenty. Although she took time to warm up and was challenged by Saariaho’s more taxing passages and long lines, with the necessary amplification not always flattering, Sheldon’s grasp of the recitative style of delivery was to be commended. Like Dawn Upshaw, for which the piece was written, Sheldon possesses just the right amount of astringency in the voice to balance out the incense and bells of Saariaho’s score. Like the musical and production values, it’s a strong performance that does much to convince you of the work’s quality, but doesn’t erase its inherent weaknesses.

Sydney Chamber Opera and Sydney Festival’s La Passion de Simone is at Carriageworks January 10 and 11