Monday, December 26, 2016

L'Amour de Loin: operatic dream world

Opera may be the most tradition-bound of art forms (on a par with symphony orchestras), but the Metropolitan Opera continues to explore exciting new methods of musical storytelling with its new production of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin (Love from afar).

The production has made headlines because it's only the second opera by a female composer produced in the Met's 133-year history. In addition, it's only the fourth time that a woman has taken the podium -- the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki.


Far from a gimmick, both women are in the midst of respected careers and it seems a shame that the New York classical music world would seem to be a bit behind Europe and other areas in creating opportunities for female artistic leaders.


Now, L'Amour de Loin (which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000) has very little action and practically no change of scene. However, Canadian director Robert LePage and set/costume designer Michael Curry have created a visual world that moves while exploring such non-physical realms as mind and emotion. 



Left to right, Tamara Mumford, Susanna Phillips
 and Eric Owens in L'Amour de Loin
The plot concerns the 12th century French poet and troubador, JaufrĂ© Rudel, who was said to have fallen in love with the Countess of Tripoli (one of the Crusader states in what is now Lebanon) simply from descriptions of her virtues brought to France by pilgrim travelers. He sets sail across the Mediterranean to see her, falls ill on the journey and, upon arrival, dies in her arms.

This is wholly in keeping with improbably opera plots, but as is often the case, plot isn't the main point. Inhabiting the mythical status of the story, L'Amour de Loin explores the quality of purity in love, divorced from love's object. The poetic libretto by Amin Maalouf even asks, "What good is love from afar?"


The undulating sea is suggested by rows of thousands of LED lights suspended across the stage. A pilgrim traveler (Tamara Mumford) and Rudel (Eric Owens) travel in a small boat, but a large set piece resembling a bridge on a single pivot also suggests a boat and, when stationary, a shore or the rim of a castle. The lights swirl with color and are separated by enough space that the chorus seems to rise from the sea.


The work of lighting designer Kevin Adams, lighting image designer Lionel Arnould and sound designer Mark Grey is seamlessly integrated.    


While firmly tonal, Saariaho's music includes electronic sounds. Each character, the chorus and the orchestra is given differentiated music. (I was particularly struck by the nearly-human quality of the woodwind voices.)


Malkki's conducting drew out all the sectional qualities with a clear sense of pace. However, the score's overall flowing, dreamlike quality did produce one unintended effect: my seat companion and I found our eyelids lowering during the first half. At intermission, we agreed that we were so fascinated by what we were seeing and hearing that we were fighting the somnolent urge.


The small cast was thrillingly committed to the music. An announcement before the performance told us that Owens was battling bronchitis, but "he wishes to sing for you." His commanding bass-baritone voice seemed slightly diminished in power, with an occasional cough, but beautifully expressed Rudel's discontent and longing. I was glad Owens made the effort.


Mumford's pilgrim traveler shuttled between the lovers with a sturdy sense of mission and compassion. As the countess, soprano Susanna Phillips seemed to glow with both physical beauty and wistfulness, soaring in her final moments as she rails against fate and prays to - whom? God or her "love from afar?" The mysterious qualities of love seem to intersect with faith to pose eternal questions.  


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