- Last Updated: 11:39 PM, July 20, 2012
- Posted: 10:43 PM, July 20, 2012
Lincoln Center Festival at the Gerald Lynch Theater, 524 W. 59th St.; 212-721-6500. Next performances tonight and tomorrow.
Scientist, lover, gambler, unwed mother — the 1700s French intellectual Émilie du Châtelet was all these and more.
But even so great a thinker might have trouble recognizing herself in Kaija Saariaho’s bland one-woman opera, which premiered Thursday at the Lincoln Center Festival.
“Émilie” depicts a sleepless night toward the end of the scientist’s life. Soon to go into labor, she hurries to complete her translation of an Isaac Newton treatise, and worries about dying in childbirth.
What’s lacking both in drama and music is any sense of Émilie’s joie de vivre or passion for science. Amin Maalouf’s libretto presents her as a Mensa-level Debbie Downer.
The music by Saariaho, Carnegie Hall’s 2011-2012 composer-in-residence, features shimmering clouds of dissonant chords stitched together with harpsichord arpeggios suggesting the 18th-century setting.
Exotic percussion like the marimba adds color, but the emotional range is narrow: It sounds the same whether Émilie is lecturing on gravitational theory or addressing her unborn child.
Unlike many contemporary composers, though, Saariaho writes handsomely for the voice. The long solo role sits poised in soprano Elizabeth Futral’s warm midrange, rising to ringing high notes as she delights in Newton’s equations.
The busy 48-year-old diva — who’s alternating between this and “The Music Man” up at Glimmerglass — boasts clear and fluent French, and looks like the glamorous toast of the French aristocracy Émilie was.
What she doesn’t look is pregnant. While the plot revolves around Émilie’s isolation — expectant women of that era were forbidden to appear in public — Futral flaunts a trim waist many a Violetta would envy.
That’s hardly the only misstep in Marianne Weems’ production.
Attempting to jazz up the static story, she cluttered the stage with translucent screens for film projections of stars, math formulas and smiling babies.
With Futral stranded most of the night upstage of one screen or another, the show looks like something glimpsed through a flapping window curtain.
The real Émilie’s life was exciting and vibrant, so it can’t be right for this opera to feel so distant and cold.