The French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Louis de Maupertuis (1698 –1759) and his 1736-37 expedition to Lapland to measure the shape of the Earth are well known in my home village, as it is the place where the most northern peak of his measurements is located. My childhood home is at the foot of this forest-covered hill, Kittisvaara, so I literally found this story on my back yard.
I was always fascinated by the heroic task the French scientists were able to carry out fighting against the extreme Arctic nature. These calculations of the Earth’s flattening ratio were groundbreaking in many ways. For example, they paved way for the introduction of the metric system later, and knowledge on the exact curvature of the Earth has also partly made possible our precise GPS tracking systems.
However, it was not until I came across the story of Christine Planström (1714 – end of 1780’s), at the time a young woman in Torneå, that the seeds of this opera started to grow in my mind. She met the expedition members in her provincial hometown, and apparently made an impression on Maupertuis, who wrote a love poem for her. After the Frenchmen had left Lapland, Christine decided to trace them in the almost impossibly distant Paris. The libretto thus revolves around geographical, social and emotional journeys that take Maupertuis and Christine on colliding courses with each other. He knows the gardens of Versailles. She knows the rapids of the Torne River. Can these two persons and two different worlds build a bridge of communication between each other?
In Lapland Maupertuis not only had to face the extremes of the northern wilderness, the cold and the dark of the winter and the summer’s ardent midnight sun, but also the extremes of his own nature. His mathematical discipline was challenged by something he was not prepared for: his emotions for Christine. The well-mannered man of the word threw the sensible young woman off her balance too, enough to make her embark on a life-changing journey. But in Paris their roles became reversed. It was now Christine who was the outsider.
Thematically, the opera deals with the issue of displaced identity. An individual is always anchored to community. Breaking this link can suppress an individual’s identity into constant reflection from an outsider’s position. How do we then communicate the essence of ourselves to someone who has no frame of reference to understand who we are and where we come from? How do we connect to things that are important to us when they are not in our reach? How do we remain true to ourselves?
The characters of Maupertuis and Christine are being examined through these questions. Maupertuis was perhaps able to probe the North safely from inside the bubble of his expedition, but Christine had to give up her family, her culture, her religion and her language when she ventured after him. Maupertuis was not willing to put anything ahead of his science, whereas Christine put everything at stake in pursuit of communication through love. His tragedy was that he was not able to deal with the raw power of emotions; hers, in turn, that she trusted her heart blindly.
Kettling Christine wanders alone in the northern nature. She is in her element. The universe is hers.
Nous quittons nos iris Maupertuis arrives in Torneå by boat. The journey has been exhausting. He already longs back for Paris.
Un citron ou une mandarin Maupertuis meets Christine for the first time. He spins her head with French manners and a lesson in trigonometry.
Arc-en-ciel triple Maupertuis is immersed in his calculations. The Lappish nature seems alien to him. An exceptional phenomenon, a triple rainbow, distracts him from his work. He is overwhelmed, but soon regains his scientific approach.
Kom låtom oss på jorden Life in the rugged north is hard. Christine finds her strength to survive in her belief and in nature.
La zone brûlante Maupertuis composes a love poem to Christine. Flattered by it, she begins to learn French.
Voyage Maupertuis embarks on a sea journey back to France. Christine feels the pull of her heart. She decides to follow him.
Paris The rules of social conduct in Paris are different from those in Lapland. Christine makes her best to adapt, but she doesn’t quite know how.
Les potins The woman of the cold North becomes the hottest fascination in town, but sordid rumours of the real reason behind the Lappish girl’s arrival in Paris start to get louder.
La sauvage Maupertuis is annoyed by he gossip. He tries to silence them by boasting with his achievements. Christine is offended by the way he treats her. Tension between them leads to confrontation.
Arc-en-ciel triple (reprise) Maupertuis abandons the tricky world of courtship and returns to the one lasting love of his life, mathematics.
Kom låtom oss på jorden (reprise) Christine retreats to a monastery. A part of Lapland still remains with her.
Photos © Axel Labrette.