Thursday, January 26, 2017

Love Is Elsewhere

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin
Metropolitan Opera
December 17, 2016

Love is elsewhere, until it isn't.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
From the very beginning, with its in medias res amorphous opening, the uncanny score of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin throws you into a dream-like universe. Lush and atmospheric, the Finnish composer’s music suspends the listener over an indistinct watery expanse. Eschewing an overture or prelude of any kind, the first bars conjure a brine-laden formless and foggy seascape that only slowly comes into focus the way distance lies out over the ocean.

Susanna Mälkki conducted an exceedingly smooth reading of this uncanny score with the utmost polish. Interestingly, in recordings with other conductors the same score seems more flush with jolting surprises from jarring horns and more pronounced cacophony from the percussion. The mood created by Ms. Mälkki was more suggestive, more oneiric. It came off to my ear more of a dreamy Debussy dream (à la Pelleas et Melisande), with some of the quirkier Messiaen eccentricities that punctuate its aural landscape toned down and mellowed out.

Bands of light imitate the sea.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Director Robert Lepage’s luminous production provided a fitting counterpoint to the mellifluous score. Lepage and his team focused on the ineluctable and seemingly insuperable obstacles that separate us from one another in any relationship; the daunting gulf that so often divides two people and impedes connection. The staging at the Met was dominated by some two-dozen bands of light that represented the central figure of the sea in the story over which he suspended a mobile crane that could become a stairway with a platform on either end. The effect of the bands of light was hypnotic, particularly when they were made to fluctuate, rise and fall, imitating at one point the movements of a gentle yet unsettling storm at sea. But like many of this visionary director’s productions this one was kind of a one trick pony, which in this case was not entirely off base. It matched the spectral, minimalist nature of the music, and it heightened the dreaminess of certain moments in the story, especially when Rudel dreams and the idealized object of his affections (played by a dancer) materializes over the bands of light, diving through the waves in a dolphin-like fashion.

Also effective was the way the chorus was deployed. Strategically placed beneath the “water” toward the back of the stage, where they could only just barely be seen allowed them to lend their voices to the majestic and almost mystical heightening of the singers’ voices throughout the opera. It created a haunting and often imperceptible embellishment of the sound of the individual singers and an almost spiritual elevation of the emotions. Less compelling was the peek-a-boo choreographies they were made to do, poking their heads up over the “surface” of the water in certain nightmarish moments.

The chorus makes its presence known.
Photo credit: Sarah Krulwich
Based on a very brief romanticized account of the life of the Provençal troubadour Jaufré Rudel, the plot of L’Amour de Loin can be summarized as follows: a prince is bored with his womanizing life and decides to devote his energies to love more deeply; a pilgrim passing by tells him about this incredibly beautiful woman who lives across the sea in enemy territory; prince gets very excited about the idea and starts singing lovely poetry about the woman as the perfect idea of love; pilgrim tells the woman about all the fuss she’s created overseas and she’s not sure how to take it; prince decides to make the trip across the sea to finally meet the object of his desire but when he gets there he dies from the hardships of sea travel; woman finally sees the love and gets all combative about the whole ordeal.

A lyric lady of love breaks through to the other side.
Photo credit: Met Opera
This is an opera composed by a woman about a man looking at a woman who in turn finally gets her voice in the act of looking back at that man. Despite the seemingly traditional underpinnings of the romantic story itself, the triangulation of these various gazes, nevertheless, packs a radical punch.

Scores of lyric ladies have appeared over the millennia in the amorous and elegiac poetic tradition from Catullus, Propertius and Ovid to the troubadours, Dante and the centuries of Petrarchists who continue to write right down to our own time. In the history of this patriarchal literary trope, rarely are the female objects of these poets’ affections ever afforded the agency of speaking for themselves, seldom are they granted a voice of their own.

If you read the libretto divorced of the score and its staging, you come away with the impression that Clémence is quick to respond to her suitor’s advances in kind. But the way the end of both Act II and Act III were staged by LePage show that something slightly deeper may going on here.

Clémence steps down from her pedestal.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The most powerful of these moments occurs at the end of Act III. Throwing a mini-conniption fit, Clémence steps down off the pedestal, on which even the director has placed her, thus breaking the illusion of the show, and stands between two of the bands of light, in the middle of the “water,” as though the make-believe were over and it was no longer “water.” She is indeed brazenly standing up and making herself heard as a living woman and not an idealization. She defiantly no longer wants to play the game of representation and fantasy anymore. If she has a say in the matter, she isn’t going to allow herself to be loved in an idealistic way by someone who has never even met her. In this take, Clémence transcends her status as passive object of desire. For a fleeting moment in the story, she’s not going to humor a distant love like this. She is a human being just like he is and thus wants a love that is human.

In the role of the lover from afar, Jaufré Rudel, was bass-baritone, Eric Owens, from whose booming imperious voice I expected more. He left me feeling a little lukewarm. Other singers that I have heard in this role have imbued the character with a slightly more irascible, angrier reaching quality that makes the desire of the poor bereft troubadour soar a little more. Owens sounded more resigned in the chesty depths of his longing, coming across as a lover who is more languidly lethargic than energetic in his desire.

The messenger scene.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Beset not only by the obstacle of the sea, the two lovers in this opera, which is set in the eleventh century against the backdrop of a holy war, are positioned on opposite sides of enemy lines. The figure of the Pilgrim, here sung by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, is deployed as a conduit for the lyricism of the troubadour to pass from one character to the next. The flights of poetic inspiration with which the opera opens belong to Jaufré. He sends his lyrical spirit along via the Pilgrim who has been charged with the task of embodying those inspired verses for his beloved which then in turn inspire her to embark on flights of lyric fancy of her own.

Like Sancho Panza in an analogous messenger scene in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the Pilgrim rather humorously forgets most of the content of the poetic missive from Jaufré to Clémence. He manages to transmit nothing more than the gist of the message after garbling the end of the song he was sent to sing on behalf of his master. It is a light-hearted moment in an otherwise rather stolid evening at the opera. Fortunately Mumford didn’t ham it up but rather she played the humor with subtlety and tact. She pushed the ethereal sound of her instrument throughout. And equally used her mezzo to soar on amorous pinions in ways that Eric Owens’ instrument simply did not, at least the evening that we heard him. Interestingly, the Pilgrim’s arias are the only portions of the opera that sound like they belong to the era the plot is set in, with a style reminiscent of medieval madrigals.

Don't shoot the messenger
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Soprano Susanna Phillips, in the role of Clémence, was simply stunning. She embodied the tricky tempos and other idiosyncrasies of the score beautifully and she nailed all the soaring high notes that gave angelic wings to her unattainable beauty. Phillips made the show, as both the empowered woman with a say in things and the impressionable young pushover that this character’s duality encompasses. Because, of course, by the end she does indeed eventually embody the cardinal virtue suggested by her symbolic name.

The poet sets out to cross the sea.
Photo credit: Sarah Krulwich
Once Jaufré musters the wherewithal to cross the sea, the journey takes its toll on him. He arrives only to collapse at the feet of his beloved and rather anticlimactically dies in her arms. There is nothing particularly moving about this sudden and almost mechanical turn of events. Instead, the climax is saved for Clémence’s response to what she is forced to endure. Seeing that God has struck down a man so good and so sincere in his love, she lashes out in frustration at the injustice underlying God’s moral universe.

The lovers briefly meet across the chasm.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The outcome of this brief but profound long-distance romance leads her to take up another call to arms. This time Clémence turns to another “lover,” one who rather ambiguously is either God himself or the deified spirit of her lost lover. To remedy one distant love she turns to another even more impossibly distant love. Depending on how you take this spiritual turn in the story, the end of the opera either undermines or reinforces the notion that there is something about true love is always only ever elsewhere.

And this is where L’Amour de Loin, while it may be set in the middle ages, is the product of a more modern and intellectual, almost aseptic, sensibility. This is not an opera that unleashes emotions or visceral reactions of any sort. The dramatic tension is somehow there, yet it does not explode in any traditional way. There is a lot of exploration of ideas about love, but the story as told by the music never gets to your heart.

– Lui & Lei

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