Composer: Kaija Saariaho
Librettist: Amin Maalouf
Conductor: Susanna Mälkki
Producer/Director: Robert Lepage
Jaufré Rudel: Eric Owens
Clémence: Susanna Phillips
The Pilgrim: Tamara Mumford
Now that a woman has technically – if not effectively – broken one of the highest glass ceilings of them all (by a couple million more votes and counting), it somehow seems fitting that the Met presents an opera composed by a woman for the second time ever (and over one century after the first one, Ethel Smyth's Der Wald, in 1903), and conducted by a woman for the fourth time ever. And those ladies are not just any composer or conductor either, as Kaija Saariaho has had a long and acclaimed career that is going stronger than ever and Susanna Mälkki has been an increasingly in demand maestra. Makes you wonder what on earth is in the Finnish water...
I actually had a first taste of L'amour de loin back in October at the Park Avenue Armory where Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic and Jennifer Zetlan in "Lohn", and the intriguing experience had left me curious for more. That and the frustrating stinginess of the Met when it comes to new works made this new offering an opportunity I simply could not miss.
So there I was on Saturday afternoon in the not quite filled opera house, getting ready for a performance that was supposed to run two and a half hours, including intermission, which, frankly, was a welcome change after the extended, if worthy, marathons of Tristan und Isolde and Guillaume Tell.
Fact is, with a minimal plot and only three characters, if you do not count the ubiquitous sea and the sporadically appearing chorus, L'amour de loin really does not need more than a couple of hours to make its point. Inspired by real-life 12th century French Prince of Blaye, also known as the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, and his idealized love for Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, the opera combines several themes such as medieval times and the mysterious nature of love that seem ready-made for Kaija Saariaho's delicately colored and exquisitely ethereal music.
As the prince who had grown tired of the party scene and yearned for more elevated pursuits, bass-baritone Eric Owens conveyed the right amount of inescapable world-weariness and child-like innocence. His voice was dark and his performance earthy, giving much weight to his words and feelings as he was struggling to figure out what to do about this "love from afar". His pouring out his heart to Clémence as he was dying in her arms in the final scene especially showed his genuine gift for raw sensitivity.
Symbolizing an idealized love that is "beautiful without the arrogance for the beauty" is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it, and soprano Susanna Phillips did it extremely well thanks in large part to her luminous presence and radiant singing. Resplendent in a mermaid-like silver dress and naturally flowing dark hair, her Clémence was both surreally beautiful and profoundly human, her agile and limpid voice completely in tune with the music’s complexities.
As the indispensable go-between before modern communication was even thought of, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford was the nameless pilgrim, who tirelessly brought messages in person to the distant lovers. Her poised and gorgeous voice was a pure pleasure to listen to, and her singing Jaufré's poems to Clémence in Act II had to be one of the most memorable moments of the entire afternoon.
As usual, the Met chorus brilliantly contributed to the performance, whether as a haunting background during a raging storm, Jaufré fun-loving buddies or Clémence's fancy entourage, never mind that they looked like cute little water goblins bobbing up and down the waves, which from time to time became a (presumably unintended) comical distraction.
The fourth bona fide character was the sea separating the star-crossed lovers, and if it did not utter any sound, it sure had a mesmerizing visual presence throughout the opera. Made of thousands of LED lights, dozens of strings extended across the entire stage twinkling, changing colors and shifting shapes to create natural elements such as swelling waves and golden sunsets as well as emphasize emotional highs and lows. As dazzlingly shimmering as the music, the sea also cleverly prevented even the most static moments from becoming lifeless.
But all was not uniformly well on the stage as apparently director Robert Lepage just cannot stay away from big machinery, even if that got him in plenty of trouble a few years ago with his absurdly costly and widely derided "Ring" cycle. This time he settled for one mobile staircase for the characters to occasionally perch on, walk on and generally move around on. It may have been convenient as an all-purpose prop, but it was downright ugly and inappropriately stood out on the otherwise stylishly unfussy set.
The other misfire in my view was having Clémence spontaneously jump around the waves like a dolphin on her way to make her first (imaginary) appearance to a delirious Jaufré. While her official appearance standing up behind his boat made for a sizzling tableau that turned into an instant classic and, not so incidentally, a promotional image, her getting there half-flying, half-swimming looked decidedly awkward and was, all things considered, really not necessary.
Two reliable sources of mine had informed me that the second part would be better than the first, and I, along with a couple of patrons I over-heard on my way out, whole-heartedly agree. The first three acts moved at an uneven pace, which had as much to do with the score as with the production, while the last two acts had mercifully much more dramatic power. For those of us who fully stepped into the composer’s esoteric world and stuck around after intermission, there was ultimately plenty of poetic justice to be savored.
In true Saariaho fashion, the score was a resolutely minimalist, deeply atmospheric and inconspicuously seductive combination of myriads of timbres, textures, colors and harmonies that subtly evoked the Middle Ages, exotic lands, uncontrollable longings, confusing emotions and the quest for ideal love. Nobody left the opera house humming an infectious melody, but there was plenty of conventional lyricism to be enjoyed.
Due to its refined nature, the music could have easily come out monotonous or mushy in lesser hands. However, under the precise and assertive baton of Susanna Mälkki, the Met orchestra, which always seems to strive on new challenges, gave an intelligently scintillating performance, making sure that all the tiny details came through crystal clear while still keeping the integrity of the whole piece intact. The voyage may not have been constantly smooth sailing, but it had been different and rewarding.