with a libretto by Amin Maalouf
Eric Owens (Jaufré Rudel), Susanna Phillips (Clémence), Tamara Mumford (The Pilgrim)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)
Robert Lepage (director)
Sybille Wilson (associate director), Michael Curry (sets & costumes), Kevin Adams, Lionel Arnould (lighting), Mark Grey (sound design)
Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center
December 21, 2016
History was made at the Metropolitan Opera stage on the evening of Dec. 1, 2016, at least in terms of the history of the opera company itself. With the premiere of Robert Lepage’s new production of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s 2000 opera L’Amour de loin, the storied performing arts organization presented the first opera composed by a woman in 103 years. Even better, for this production, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was also led by a woman: a fellow Finn, Susanna Mälkki, a rising conducting star who, only a little more than a year before this, had made her NYC debut leading the New York Philharmonic in a program featuring two well-known Brahms works (including a fiery account of the First Piano Concerto with soloist Kirill Gerstein) and a rapturous 1998 piece, Tranquil Abiding, by the late British composer Jonathan Harvey.
Such progressive milestones should certainly not be downplayed, especially amid a political climate in the United States that threatens to put the whole nation on a socially retrograde course. But beyond the arguable social significance of the production, what of the work itself—one that especially demands to be seen as standing above perceptions of topical relevance with a tale that hearkens all the way back to the twelfth century? On that level, there is indeed much to be said about L’Amour de loin and this new production.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Saariaho’s work has become of the few twenty-first-century operas to reach anything close to global popularity, and the reason for that can be glimpsed in one of the other operas the Metropolitan Opera has staged this season, the more canonically established Tristan und Isolde. Like Richard Wagner’s masterpiece, L’Amour de loin is also about forbidden love—albeit one hindered by distance rather than social and emotional boundaries. Saariaho’s opera even has a Brangäne equivalent in a seafaring Pilgrim who acts as a go-between for both Jaufré Rudel, the hopeless-romantic troubadour/Prince of Blaye, and Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli who yearns to return to her childhood home of Toulouse. And like Tristan, L’Amour de loin culminates in a Liebestod of its own. In Saariaho’s case, it may only be one character who physically dies rather than both, but the implication of a death that’s as much fulfillment as tragedy is remarkably similar.
But it’s not like Wagner, much less Saariaho, was exactly treading new thematic territory. Love in all its many and varied forms is a popular mainstay in the art form, fueling everything from the earliest Monteverdi favola in musica to Missy Mazzoli’s recent adaptation of Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves. In short, audiences enjoy love stories (or, at least, performing arts administrators and librettists assume they do). It’s up individual creators to find something new to say while still relying on such well-worn tropes. Wagner famously found that fresh perspective through his immersion in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, infusing his interpretation of the ancient Celtic myth of Tristan and Iseult with the latter’s belief that the renunciation of individual desires is necessary in order to achieve inner peace.
If L’Amour de loin could be said to espouse any sort of philosophy at all, it lies in a much simpler vein than Tristan und Isolde’s emotional complexities. The title of Saariaho’s opera translates into English as “love from afar,” and, philosophically speaking, that’s what the work is ultimately about: whether it is, in fact, possible to love someone from a distance, without having met them in person—whether, in other words, there is a nobility to falling in love with the ideal of someone rather than the person him- or herself. Such inquiries into impossible romances were common in twelfth-century European poetry, the tradition from which the work’s source material, Jaufré Rudel’s La vida breve, arises. Lest one understand this origin and assume from the outset a drama of startling quaintness, consider, in our modern world, the proliferation of online-dating websites and apps as a method of forging romantic connections, with whole courtships being conducted through a digital divide, and with the possibility of cultivating online personas that may or may not correspond to actual reality. The potential for new generations of Jaufré Rudel-like hopeless romantics continues unabated.
It’s that conversation between hopeless romanticism and mundane reality that offers the most potent dynamic in L’Amour de loin. In librettist Amin Maalouf’s dramatization, Jaufré’s passionate idealism and Clémence’s grounded pragmatism—worldviews that confirm or challenge a men’s chorus in Jaufré’s case, and a women’s chorus in Clémence’s—finds a fulcrum in the Pilgrim, a gender-ambiguous (referred to as a “he” in Maalouf’s libretto, but performed by a mezzo-soprano) sailor whose sympathy for both people leads her to act in ways that eventually bring them together, even if that’s not exactly her original intention. But these characters aren’t just thesis positions in a music-drama term paper. Clearly a man who has had a lot of lovers in the past but remains fundamentally unsatisfied by such transitory pleasures, Jaufré is driven as much by a primal desire to find “the one” as by any philosophical inklings. As for Clémence, her discovery of Jaufré’s affection for her acts as a distraction from her unhappiness in Tripoli, where she hasn’t felt truly at home since leaving her hometown of Toulouse as a child—a yearning for homecoming which is only further stoked when she finds out Jaufré is the prince of a region in France. Both characters also have distinct dramatic arcs: Clémence gradually begins to accept and even warm to the idea of a man loving her from a geographical distance; while Jaufré is finally pushed to bridge that distance, but finds himself fearing the meet-up the closer he gets, afraid the reality won’t live up to the poetic ideal he previously envisioned.
All of this is swathed in music that is . . . well, “enchanting” is not necessarily the right way to describe Saariaho’s accompaniment here. Certainly, the heavily chromatic idiom and recurrent reliance on lower strings, brass, and percussion to give the piece a foreboding flavor mark it as starkly different from, say, the gossamer textures of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, perhaps the closest standard repertoire equivalent to the way L’Amour de loin generally subjugates standard melodies for the sake of impressionistic tone and color. Saariaho’s score doesn’t always escape the feeling of dour self-seriousness, though, especially with such a thin plot supporting its five acts. And though the music is always striking to hear—with her use of a lute to bring a medieval taste into an otherwise deeply modern soundworld particularly noteworthy—it does occasionally verge on the monotonous, with barely any variation in emotional range even as the drama occasionally makes the occasional stab at humor (like the Pilgrim’s exasperation at Jaufré’s umpteenth request that he describe Clémence for her in Act III). This may well simply be a natural byproduct of Saariaho’s usual musical style, which is built more on sonic exploration than dramatic urgency—perfectly fine for pure concert works, arguably less so for music dramas such as L’Amour de loin. On the other hand, perhaps its immovably glacial feel is appropriate for a drama that focuses on characters who are, to some extent, paralyzed by fear of change.
Thankfully, in the case of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, Robert Lepage offered some genuinely wondrous visuals to keep one’s eye consistently engaged. Most Met Opera patrons will know Lepage as the mastermind behind the much-disputed production of Wagner’s Ring cycle a few years ago, with its massive contorting machine of twenty-seven giant planks that infamously malfunctioned during certain performances. Thankfully, Lepage’s conception for L’Amour de loin is much simpler and more satisfying: Lepage projects 28,000 blue LED lights onto an ascending set of risers, all of which are collectively manipulated to evoke the look and feel of the sea—the crucial pathway for Jaufré and Clémence to relay their feelings for each other through the Pilgrim. (Lepage’s visualization of Jaufré’s travels on the sea at the beginning of Act IV, with the risers seemingly moving up and down, is the only moment that recalls his misbegotten earlier Ring cycle, though it works considerably better here.) The only other props Lepage employs are a moveable bridge on which the two royal main characters stand as they behold the sea, and the boat on which the Pilgrim travels. Lepage’s production is, in short, a highly abstract one, perhaps the better to allow the philosophical implications of Jaufré’s desire for a “love from afar” to reverberate in one’s mind.
As to the human details, however, those were brilliantly covered by the three principal singers. Eric Owens has been a rising star for a few years now, with his memorable portrayal of Alberich in that Lepage Ring production bringing him to new levels of prominence. That performance showcased not only Owens’s rich bass-baritone voice, but also his remarkable ability to locate the aching vulnerability in even the most dastardly of characters. Jaufré is nothing if not the embodiment of said vulnerability, and Owens effortlessly conveyed that tenderness (even while fighting bronchitis, as was the case at the Dec. 21 performance I attended). Susanna Phillips was persuasive in expressing both Clémence’s earthy insecurities and the transcendent radiance that Jaufré ascribes to her sight unseen. Possibly even better was Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim, bringing hints of seen-it-all world-weariness even as she suddenly finds herself invested, in her own damped-down ways, in the happiness of both of these characters. Even if you ultimately believe that the drama of L’Amour de loin is much ado about very little, this trio of singers, allied with Saariaho’s melancholic music and Maalouf’s poetic libretto, helped make this unconventional romance play as if the fate of a whole world was at stake.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Paste Magazine, and The Village Voice, among other publications. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine.
Banner image: Tamara Mumford, Eric Owens
Image credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera