The idea of a monodrama opera based on the final days of an 18th-century female mathematician feverishly working on a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica seems like cerebral, left-field territory for the modern opera world, and Saturday night’s performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Emilie proved just how simultaneously adventurous and unfortunate the premise actually is.
Although previously produced in Lyon and Amsterdam, the work finally received a U.S. premiere as part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. Saariaho has certainly shown a penchant for odd operatic inspiration, with her most notable work being 2000’s critically acclaimed L’amour de Loin—a sprawling three-hour opera about a 12th-century troubadour who falls in love with the Countess of Tripoli based on a mere description of the woman. With Emilie, however, Saariaho pared back her sense of melody, timing, and dense orchestration, yielding mixed results in the process.
Centered on the final days of Emilie du Chatelet—a noted mathematician and former lover of Voltaire—the opera recounts the sole character’s struggle with death, the wide expanse of the universe, and the difficult pregnancy that ultimately took her life. Emilie’s 80-minute monologue spans a huge range of emotions, moving from questions of mortality and the afterlife to relaxed reverie in recounting her passionate days with Voltaire.
The modern set design hinged on Robert LePage-esque film elements that utilized reflective stage pieces projected dozens of candles, a mirror, and Newton’s equations, but the lack of momentum on the stage quickly felt static. Obviously with one character, there are inherent limits to the action, but soprano Elizabeth Futral’s own performance felt oddly confined as well, despite a clear passion for the material.
Only moving between a desk and an oddly placed fainting couch, Futral didn’t do much to evoke Chatelet’s laborious pregnancy or her neurotic fear of impeding oblivion. In fact, she graced the stage as if playing Violetta in La Traviata, writhing on top of the desk at one point in ecstatic bliss. Even in the opera’s final moments as Emilie faces death head-on and the set fades to black, Futral processed like a princess moving to her coronation, and not to her execution.
Despite the lack of proper emoting onstage and a wide vibrato that became distracting at times, Futral handled the score well. As electronic voices were added to the texture—reflecting Voltaire’s romantic phrases and Chatelet’s daughter’s imagined voice—Saariaho wove interesting counterpoint between the live and electronic elements, mirroring the mind’s ability to recall memories as they truly happened, and not just in our own voice.
Given the constraints of the setting, source material, and pressure involved with pitting one singer against an orchestra for over an hour, the work was engaging. Although no credit can be given for reinventing her sonic wheel in this work, no one can fault Saariaho for creating a dark, serpentine score that allows one soprano to play the central diva—a nearly 300-year-old character that wrestles with the same anxieties and quest for knowledge and power that all brilliant minds face today in much the same manner.