Kaija Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains takes flight from an intriguing premise and a stellar artistic team. The opera draws on two Noh plays, as translated by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, while Saariaho is renowned for her scores’ complex and sumptuous sonorities. Peter Sellars directs and the opera features world-class contemporary dance. Yet despite such promise, the production makes for peculiarly dreary viewing, notwithstanding some fine performances from soloists and ensemble.
The work comprises adaptations of two freestanding plays. The first, Always Strong, sees a monk summon the ghost of a young lute player killed in battle, whose soul is endlessly haunted by memories of violence.
The second, Feather Mantle, tells of a fisherman who comes across a delicate feathered gown belonging to an angel. The fisherman only agrees to return the gown (and thus allow the angel to return to heaven) if she will perform a cosmic dance for him, which she duly agrees to, before at last vanishing into the mists of Mount Fuji.
Composed in 2016 for Dutch National Opera’s commendably progressive Opera Forward Festival, the work holds some rich material but never quite gets off the ground. Saariaho’s scoring for the seven-piece digitally-enhanced ensemble is often mesmerisingly beautiful, shimmering with bass flute and kantele (a Finnish zither), but the vocal writing for the two soloists lacks convincing emotional punch, despite the best efforts of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and bass Davóne Tines. Dance artist Nora Kimball-Mentzos brings some life to Feather Mantle with her clever and poised choreography, but the opera as a whole still feels curiously flat. As if trying to eke out the drama, the camera movement work in this filmed account is often frantic, with the result that the soloists’ performances can feel uncomfortably overwrought.
All in all, Only the Sound Remains is an oddly underwhelming experience.