NEW YORK — Elizabeth Futral leaned back on a sofa and addressed her as-yet-unborn child, saying that if the baby is a girl, she should stand up for her rights and not dwell on tears.
Emilie du Chatalet was a woman ahead of her time, a mathematician and physicist who was Voltaire's longtime lover and an intellectual who translated Isaac Newton's "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" into French. On a simple set with plain costumes, Futral gave a touching, bravura portrayal Thursday night at John Jay College's Lynch Theater in the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho's 70-minute monodrama "Emilie," part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
Written for Karita Mattila, who sang at the world premiere at Lyon, France, two years ago, "Emilie" unfolds in nine scenes that each centers on a topic, such as "Voltaire," "Child," "Fire" and "Against Oblivion." The setting is du Chatalet's home on Sept. 1, 1749, days before she gives birth and just before her death on Sept. 10 at age 42.
Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Chatelet, as her full name went, is a compelling character for an opera, rushing to complete her translation of Newton before the death she expects is imminent.
Wearing a nightgown and a robe, she moves back and forth between a desk and a sofa, spilling her thoughts, struggles, frustrations and hopes.
Futral handles the drama and soprano music with flair. While some ascending notes sounded slightly strident, it also appeared the notes were supposed to come off that way.
Saariaho uses a 26-person orchestra for her striking score, creating an atmosphere of delicate, syncopating notes filled with color and lightness. Right from the sound of the electronically processed harpsichord, the sound is distinctive. Processing also is used at times for Futral's voice, with the electronic sound melding into a duet with her actual voice.
The stage action can get static at time – this is a one-woman show, much like Schoenberg's "Erwartung (Expectation)." Director Marianne Weems, who created this production in May last year for Spoleto Festival USA, uses screens for projections that range from her writing with a fountain pen to flickering candles to geometry and physics. The scene transformations appear effortlessly.
Futral, who sang at the U.S. premiere, was given a big ovation along with the composer. Additional performances are Saturday and Sunday.