It had to happen. Spoleto is just a 75-minute drive cruising my trusty truck on Interstate 26 to Charleston, and that trip has allowed me three times to attend operas -- all of which have come from composers, let alone operas, whose works I've never seen live in person. In 2001 (twice) it was Puccini's Manon Lescault and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, while in 2009 it was Charpentier's Louise. It would be again the same old song in 2011, written with a choice of three operas I could attend. One was another (just how many performances is too much in a year) of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, while the second was another opera from the father of Spoleto, Menotti's The Medium (considering I've seen two other Menotti operas in the past, it wouldn't fit Spoleto custom; one led to lore that is known between a Mississippi Squirrel and myself).
So, in the ten-year anniversary of my first opera attended at Spoleto, I kept the "new car smell" and this time, it was the American debut of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's story (debuted March 1, 2010 in France) of distinguished French scientist Émilie du Chastelet (actual spelling; the more recognised spelling Châtelet, replacing the s by a circumflex over the a, was instituted by one of her lovers) simply designated Émilie, at Memminger Auditorium. Elizabeth Futral is the scientist (only role in this opera), with Neal Wilkinson as set designer, Austin Switser on video, Mariamme Weems directing, and John Kennedy as conductor. The set and video were an issue, as I'll explain later.
The setting of the opera takes place in her home in 1749, while trying to write letters to her lover, François-Marie Aroue, known by his pen name Voltaire. She had an affair with French poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert and was pregnant with her fourth child, and this opera is based on her letter to a friend that she may not survive this fourth child, and she was fearful of her life. The Neal Wilkinson set had me wondering why was the voice of Miss Futral being blocked by numerous signs, some of them transparent through the videos. While some were scientific and mathematical, in reference to her fields, some pictures shown on those pieces were highly objectionable and in violation of obscenity codes to the point Reuben Greenberg should have been called. It ruined the projection of her voice from my seat.
Interesting, the language dabbled frequently from French to some English and Latin in the duration of the short monodrama (no intermission). It was clear from the voice that the passionate scientific research of the scientist was clear, and she referenced a major work she was writing at the time, the French translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (also called simply Principia), that was published shortly before her death. Flames frequented the opera videos, paying homage to her study of fire. The work was about her fears of death, would she finish the French translation of Principia, and the video screens made it look as if the flames burned her, as she walked into oblivion with the haunting piece closing the opera. And yes, even the scientist herself loved the harpischord and sang opera herself.
If the obscene photos and obtuse obstruction of the singer's voice were removed, it would have been better suited, especially with the theme of the opera. But this dark opera has me wondering what her last moments were as she feared for her death, as it reflected on that fateful letter she wrote to a friend. ◙