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La Passion de Simone

by: Marcus J Freed - Last updated: 2007-07-24

La Passion de Simone

La Passion de Simone

Marcus J Freed visits the Barbican and sees true political fervour told through song, in the enigmatic La Passion de Simone.

New Crowned Hope is a music festival that has been transported directly from Vienna, where it was presented to coincide with the Mozart’s birthday. The influential composer died at 35 and La Passion de Simone is a powerful journey through the life of French Jewish writer Simone Weil who passed away at the tender age of 34.

This newly-commissioned oratorio is a collaboration between director Peter Sellars, and the composer Kaija Saariaho, who also wrote the libretto. La Passion is subtitled as ‘a musical journey in fifteen stations’ and the sequence of different sections focus on separate parts of Weil’s life, differing in both style and substance.

Weil may have been born a Jew but she was drawn towards other religious traditions and in 1937 underwent a spiritual revelation while visiting the church that St Francis of Assisi experienced her own epiphany. The subtitled performance incorporates the Christian philosophy from Weil’s writings, while the overall structure conjures thoughts of both passion plays and the Stations of the Cross. Despite her Christian tendencies, Weil died in England in 1943 as the result of starving to show unity with her fellow Jews who were dying in the German death camps.

Dawn Upshaw gives a phenomenal performance as Weil, her tender soprano voice riding above the excellent City of Birmingham Orchestra. Although she was confined to a prison-like area at the rear of the stage, her singing was underscored by dancer Michael Shumacher, who visually represented the pain suffered by Weil.

Some of the most poignant moments came between the acts when the orchestra paused; the sudden absence of sound made me thirsty to hear more. Just as staring into the sun leaves an imprint on the retina, the sudden lack of sound almost has the result of an aural imprint and the silences themselves contain an innate musicality. Although this probably wasn’t a deliberate reflection of the hunger endured by the eponymous character, it still had a noticeable impression.

The New Crowned Hope festival has commissioned artists from places that have experienced civil war and genocide, and the Holocaust looms large in Weil’s background. It will never be clear whether she died purely for ideology or as a result of an undiagnosed anorexia nervosa, but the world is a poorer place without her.

New Crowned Hope runs until Sat 28th July.
Box office: 020 7638 8891.