Saariaho’s “L’Amour” makes a luminous and mesmerizing Met debut

Fri Dec 02, 2016 at 12:39 pm
Eric Owens and Susanna Phillips star in Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de loin" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Eric Owens and Susanna Phillips star in Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de loin” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

In the beginning, there were the stars. They winked, one by one, as the opening sounds of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin rose Thursday night from the pit at the Metropolitan Opera House, and hinted at the magic that was to come in this company debut.

Part of the magic is that the opera appeared at all. The first work by a woman composer at the Met since Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903—despite worthy pieces from Thea Musgrave, Meredith Monk, and Unsuk Chin—and a contemporary work to boot, L’Amour is one of the finest operas seen at the Met in recent years, and this new production from Robert Lepage deserves a long rotation in the Met’s repertoire.

L’Amour debuted at the Salzburg festival in 2000, and since then has had nine separate  productions—the Met’s is the tenth. While an imperfect work, the opera is full of greatness on its own terms, as an important extension of the operatic tradition, and most importantly as a mesmerizing and fulfilling music drama.

The story is based on the life and legend of Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye (bass-baritone Eric Owens), a 12th-century troubadour who apparently died in the Middle East while participating in the Second Crusade. Jaufré left a small but important legacy of troubadour poetry.

L’Amour prints the legend that he fell in love with Clemence (soprano Susanna Phillips), Countess of Tripoli solely through the stories about her he hears from the Pilgrim (mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford). Jaufré loves her in secret, from afar (the real Jaufré created the troubadour idea of love from afar, or “l’amour de loin“), but the Pilgrim sings some of his love poetry to Clemence. Realizing he is known to the object of his abstract desires, Jaufré decides to travel across the Mediterranean to visit Clemence—who is both drawn to and uneasy about his attentions—but falls deathly ill on the journey. He is brought to Clemence, who realizes she loves him, and the two express their feelings for each other before he dies.

That is little in the way of plot, but the scenario is ideal for opera, which at its core is a means to express internal states and transformations. Saariaho’s style is tailormade for the subject, and follows from L’Amour’s clear antecedent, Pelleas et Mélisande. The music could be extracts from Medieval polyphony, while the orchestral accompaniment is timbres, colors, textures, bent notes, floating dissonances. There are tonal centers but no structural harmony, a flowing pulse but few regular rhythms, and no teleological sense of time. This is the Middle Ages, time is cyclical, and music occupies a still place of contemplation.

There are five acts that fill about two hours (with one intermission), but these are, as the score implies, tableaux–moments from life that are presented like illuminations in a Medieval manuscript. The music outlines the image, the characters transfer the words onto the page.

The cumulative effect was powerfully seductive. Saariaho has an ear for voluptuous and compelling sounds and textures. The vocal lines above her static chords rock back and forth between an adapted plainchant for dialogue and modal and pentatonic writing for aria-like expressions. This was often beautiful in a way that reached into the body, especially as channelled through Mumford and Phillips.

Both women were superb. There was very little in the way of acting for them, as their roles were entirely in the voice. Each sang with a clear, luminous sound from the very first note, with precise diction and shapely phrasing. Each also captured a deep inner life—their singing was full of feeling, often achingly so, especially in the enthralling Act II tableau where the Pilgrim tells Clemence about Jaufré, and sings his poems, in some of the most beautiful music in all of opera.

There are a few problems, though, that interrupt the flow of the experience. This happens each time a conflict arises in Amin Malouf’s French libretto; in Act III, Jaufré argues with the Pilgrim, in Act IV he struggles with whether he is wise in traveling to Tripoli, and in Act V Jaufré and Clemence wrangle with doubts over declaring love for each other. The score can’t handle these stretches. By eschewing functional harmony, Saariaho set aside the primary dramatic tool of tension and release. To express a problem that needs resolution, she used gnarled, choppy music, with awkward rhythms. The deliberate ugliness was too obvious to satisfy the drama and went against both her strengths and the entire, exalted character of L’Amour.

Owens had the bulk of this music, and his energy and determination in the face of its challenges was impressive. His bass-baritone is on the low side, and was aggravated by a touch of leather in his voice. Much of the character’s music was above his sweet spot.

His performance was earthy, opera singing as the best method acting, which was both an effective contrast to the silvery, ethereal parts for the women and an intelligent way to fight through the weaknesses in the score. His confusion and internal agonies were real, and his peace in the end was vivid.

Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

The music for the women was far more objectively beautiful, but their performances were more than simply that. Mumford captured the Pilgrim’s mix of vicarious pleasure basking in the glow of love, and regret in pushing Jaufré to his end. Clemence expands as the opera adds facets to her character, it is her voice in the end that captures the insoluble mix of love and death. She resolves to accept no other man and to enter a nunnery, and Phillips sang ambivalently about God, offering prayers if he is “Lord … of love,” whom she might also be able to love from afar. But this was a question, not an answer.

The performances were only a part of the experience; LePage’s production is wise and gorgeous, a seamless and brilliant fit with the themes and music. There are two elements; a mobile platform that serves as castle/rampart/balcony, depending on the situation, and dozens of strings of LED lights that cross the stage. It is these lights that winked on to begin, and winked off at the end, while in between they shimmered, changed color, rose and fell, representing land, sea, weather, and shifting emotional states caught between moments in time.

This was a rich vision for the eyes, affecting enough to elicit more than a slight feeling of queasiness when the seas were stormy. The chorus, alternating between male and female voices, rose from underneath the waves, then disappeared beneath. And on the long passage from Blaye to Tripoli, Jaufré dreamt of Clemence, who herself rose from the waves (first as a dancer, then as Phillips) to sing. This was one of the most glorious visual moments seen on the Met stage in recent memory.

The excellent Susanna Mälkki made her Met debut in the pit. Unlike most opening nights, there was never a hint of dispute with tempos between singers and orchestra, and the conducting revealed every detail in the score and maintained impeccable balances within the orchestra and with the singers. The Finnish conductor was received as rapturously by the audience as the singers, but none were honored as warmly as Saariaho herself.

L’Amour de Loin continues through December 29.

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