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The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”) is one of the most visually arresting projects we have seen on any stage. Tens of thousands of LED lights suspended across the stage and orchestra pit undulate and gradually change color, while the strings of lights rise and fall; the effect is to turn the entire space into a phosphorescent sea.
The opera, which premiered in 2000 in Salzburg, is based on the storied life of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel, who falls in love with Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, whom he has never met. Having spent years writing poems in her honor, he decides to undertake a voyage across the Mediterranean to meet her, but falls ill along the way. She has been prepared for his arrival by a go-between pilgrim and is heartbroken to find him on the edge of death. Not surprisingly, he dies (from the opening notes you can tell that the opera will not have a Disney ending), so Clémence forswears all other love and becomes an ascetic.
There is almost nothing to the plot, but the mesmerizing production and ethereal music render a more robust plot unnecessary. In fact, a more conventional, tortuous, operatic narrative — one complete with betrayals, bizarre coincidences, characters falling in and out of love at a moment’s notice, and so on — would have destroyed the profound emotive force of this opera. It is the simplest of stories, yet the combination of (literally) brilliant visual effects and Saariaho’s haunting score turns the paper-thin plot into a tale of mythic proportions, with the scope of Tristan und Isolde.
The narrative follows the great Western tradition of unrequited love stories. Amin Maalouf’s thoughtful libretto explores the various ways in which the Western tradition of idealized romantic love (think Petrarch) wreaks havoc on the lives of the men and women beholden to it. Jaufré is consumed with his obsession, “languishing with no hope of reciprocation.” By idolizing a woman of whom he has only heard stories, the poet has fashioned her in his own image; how could she possibly live up to such a tall order? Clémence seems to know there is something suspicious about this — she asks, “If this Troubadour knew me, would he have sung of me with such fervor?” At the same time, she cannot resist the lure of the sweeping, romantic narrative; when she sings his lines to herself (as reported by the pilgrim), it is with almost overwhelming, self-gratifying pleasure. The chorus (one of the great strengths of the score) serves as the voice of grounded practicality, asking questions like “What good is love from afar?” Of course, those who follow such sensible advice rarely become the subjects of operas. The genius of this story is that it participates in the tradition of idealized romantic love while exposing the hazards of the very kind of thinking engendered by that tradition.
The lighting design by Kevin Adams and the lightscape image design (that multitude of LEDs programmed to look like the ocean) by Lionel Arnould are nothing short of a triumph. Director Robert Lepage provides a bold, totalizing concept that beautifully integrates sight and sound; it is heartening to see the Met take a chance on such an edgy production.
The score is unlike anything that you will hear at the Met this season — Saariaho’s music is stagnant, modal, and largely driven by shifts in timbre. It is written for a large orchestra with electronics, and though it contains some hints of the sound worlds of Benjamin Britten and John Adams, its style is wonderfully original. Conductor Susanna Mälkki leads the musicians through difficult material with a sure hand, bringing out a huge spectrum of tone and color from the orchestra. Eric Owens (Jaufré) and Susanna Phillips (Clémence) express with tenderness and high tragedy the doomed couple’s love, ache, and loss, while Tamara Mumford (the androgynous pilgrim) perfectly enacts her character’s strange combination of mystic and busybody.
L’Amour de Loin is the first opera by a female composer that the Met has performed since 1903, when they staged the all-but-forgotten Der Wald by Ethel Smyth. One hundred and thirteen years is an astonishing gap, and this is still only the second opera by a woman that the Met has ever programmed. The fault lies not only with the Met, but also with the culture of classical music (and especially opera), in which few female composers have been given the chance to succeed. The Met is far from the only opera company to have committed such a sin of omission. We hope that this dazzling production of Saariaho’s masterpiece will encourage more companies to perform works by other female composers, especially those of younger generations. We need to hear the music of these minds.