By Vivien Schweitzer
NEW YORK — During the opening moments of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar), heard in its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 1, tiny lights flickered in sync with the colorful dabs of percussion and winds that punctuate the luminous score. The solitary glimmers eventually meshed into a shimmering cobalt sea that covered the stage, creating an iridescent aural and visual landscape.
At the curtain call, the loudest applause was for Saariaho and the conductor Susanna Mälkki, who led a trio of excellent vocal soloists in a memorable performance of the work, the first by a female composer at the company since the 1903 production of Der Wald by Dame Ethel Smyth. Cracks in the glass floor also widened with Mälkki in the pit, one of only a handful of women to have conducted at the Met.
This fall has been Saariaho Season in New York, where fans have had a chance to enjoy a wide range of her kaleidoscopic orchestral, chamber, and stage works. Since its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, L’Amour de loin has received several high-profile stagings, including an elegant version by Peter Sellars at the Finnish National Opera, available on DVD.
With a poetic libretto by Amin Maalouf, Saariaho’s frequent collaborator, the opera tells the story of Jaufré Rudel, a medieval French prince-troubadour who tires of his hedonistic life and seeks an ideal woman. A Pilgrim tells him that such a lady exists in the form of Clémence, the faraway Countess of Tripoli. Jaufré is immediately obsessed; the Countess — upon hearing about Jaufré from the Pilgrim — is doubtful and hesitant. Jaufré embarks on the journey to meet her, but falls sick and dies shortly after they finally meet and exchange a mutual declaration of love. Clémence, in true operatic fashion, decides to live in a convent.
Early in the opera she reveals her homesickness for her native France. “I am not of this land,” she sings, a sentiment that would surely resonate with the millions of refugees currently in exile. Jaufré, however, yearns for the East, for the unknown.
Designer Robert Lepage, much maligned for the clunky machine that dominated his set for the Met’s Ring Cycle, created a mesmerizing production of L’Amour, which featured rows of LED lights strung across the floor to evoke the sea, a sort of fourth character in the opera. The water undulated in a vibrant palette of colors during various scenes. Clémence and Jaufré spent much of the opera standing on a industrial-looking staircase that rotated over the shimmering sea like a lost appendage to an oil rig, an oddly inelegant touch in an otherwise attractive production.
L’Amour offers a contemplative experience more akin to Tristan than Traviata. But instead of the lust underlying many plots, Saariaho focuses on an idealized, intellectual love. The theatricality of the score, with meditative interludes and dramatic surges reflecting the emotional states of the characters, compensates for the lack of action onstage. An orchestral outburst mirrors Jaufré’s melancholy as he anguishes that “never shall this distant lady be mine, but I am hers.” Mälkki conducted a taut, seething rendition that highlighted the myriad subtleties of this mystical score.
Clad in a long sparkling dress, soprano Susanna Phillips sang beautifully as Clémence, a vulnerable performance that conveyed the Countess’ insecurity about the adoration of her distant admirer. The rich-voiced bass-baritone Eric Owens offered a sensitive and equally vulnerable portrayal as the love-sick troubadour.
Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford sounded lustrous as the androgynous Pilgrim, who acts as a messenger between the Countess and Jaufré. She sang from a canoe that moved slowly across the symbolic ocean on stage separating the two distant lovers. In a particularly gorgeous interlude accompanied by harp arpeggios, the Pilgrim sings the haunting, melismatic songs of the troubadour for the Countess. Mumford’s voice soared over a mystical tapestry that blended orchestra and chorus to ethereal effect. The chorus, which represents Jaufré’s companions and the women of Tripoli, sang superbly throughout, its collective torso often gently bobbing in the waves.
At the end of Act II, the self-doubting Clémence wonders if the faraway troubadour would be so enamored with her in person. “I am beautiful only in the mirror of your words,” she sings as a gentle, questioning motif unfolds in the orchestra. But while the Countess may doubt her own charms, the impact of this sensual opera is immediate — and the hearty ovations that greeted the two Finnish women who brought it to life in this milestone event were indeed well deserved.
L’Amour de loin continues at the Met through Dec. 29. For details and tickets, click here.
Vivien Schweitzer contributes to publications including The Economist and is writing a guide to opera for Basic Books.