Kaija Saariaho L’amour de loin Met

Sixteen years after its sensational premiere, Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin reached the Met in New York . Listen here on BBC Radio 3 because on repeat you can cut out the mindless Met chatter. and focus on the music.  Orchestrally,  this was ace, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, one of the great specialists in contemporary music.  She’s right up there with Nagano and Salonen, who set very high standards indeed.  Saariaho’s music is spectral, based on multitonal washes of colour and minutely-defined intervals. It shimmers with light, seemingly transparent, yet blindingly elusive. Searching lines reach into space, cut by sudden flashes of brightness. Long undulating vocal lines suggest Arabic ululation, where sounds carry over long distances. This wavering, tentative legato also suggests medieval supplication, for whatever is happening here, is more spiritual than physical.  Delicate, bird-like textures and tinkling figures on harps and strings, evoke fragility.  This isn’t love so much as the idea of love.  Is this a folie à deux (or three) where the characters function as perspectives in an act of wish fulfillment  ? This is one of those operas where meaning lies in abstract, impressionistic sounds. Do we hear medieval instruments behind the shine of modern orchestration ? Repeating figures induce hypnotic trance.  Imagination takes over from logic

Jaufré Rudel is a troubador/poet, for whom courtly love is more ideal than reality.  He sings about a woman so perfect that it seems she can’t possibly exist, but it’s enough that perfection can be glimpsed. Reality doesn’t measure up.  Maybe he’d be fine singing alone, forever in France: certainly he has a loyal audience. Yet the Pilgrim identifies the beloved with Clémence, who lives far away in Tripoli, in Africa, across the ocean.  Is it madness ?  The “Moorish” exoticism in the music intoxicates like a  invisible narcotic fumes.  Love, after all, is an “altered state”. But this is not Tristan und Isolde, where strong personalities are transformed by a potion to the horror of those around them.  Everyone in  L’amour de loin, even the Pilgrim and the choruses are complicit in delusion as if it were a communal act of creativity. When Jaufré dies before they can meet, Clémence curses God,  cadences leaping wildly upwards and down. But we’re left wondering if these lovers would really find happiness other than in dreams.

It took me a while to adjust to Eric Owen’s Jaufré. Although he sang nobly enough, the part suits a lighter, more agile voice, ideally Gerald Finley, with whom Saariaho has worked frequently. Indeed, Finley is giving the premiere of Saariaho’s True Fire, a BBC commission later this week at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO.  Susanna Phillips sang a penetrating Clémence, a better foil for Owens than a lighter voice like Dawn Upshaw, who was an ideal balance with Finley.  Tamara Mumford sang the Pilgrim rather impressively, adding depth to the role.  But kudos to the Met orchestra, who probably aren’t too used to this kind of repertoire, but rose to the occasion with Susanna Mälkki’s assured mastery of form.  

L’amour de loin is Saariaho’s masterpiece, where orchestral colour and meaning work together extremely well.  It’s a beautiful piece which grows on you, if you let yourself luxuriate in its unique dream state.  I was a lot less convinced by Saaariaho’s Adriana Mater in 2008, though it was magnificently conducted by Salonen, with Monica Groop who sang the title role in Paris and Helsinki.   The problem there was that the libretto, also by Amin Maalouf, bore little relationship to the music. Potentially, Adriana Mater could have been high drama : in a war zone, a woman has an illegitimate child but rejects the father because he’s a weak willed brute.   Saariaho’s dreamy water colour harmonies just didn’t work.  Another Saariaho/Maalouf collaboration, Le passion de Simone (2006) was more effective. That was based on the writings of Simone Weil, and thus took a form closer to oratorio than to opera.   The orchestral writing was more austere (Simone starved herself to death),  relatively little singing and a prominent part for spoken narrator.   I  didn’t go to Emilie (2010) also Saariaho/Maalouf. That was a one person vehicle for Karita Mattila, but caught the broadcast with Camilla Nylund. My review of L’amour de loin at the English National Opera, with Roderick Williams in 2009 is HERE.

Saariaho’s writing works best describing images like the ocean crossing, one of the most brilliant scenes in this production where light images are projected onto waving expanses of silk. It’s less suited to dramatic rationale. Jaufré and The Pilgrim debate endlessly whether he’s mad but the point’s already made in the music. Narrative meaning is further obscured by the distortion of natural rhythm and by dropping single spoken words into lines that are otherwise sung. Richard Stokes’s t
– See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2009/07/saariahos_sumpt.php#sthash.xRPvs6rW.dpuf
Love, after all, is an “altered state” where logic doesn’t apply, particularly in the case of idealized troubadour love, where artistic indulgence is as much an impetus as the love object. No wonder Jaufré panics and becomes fatally ill when he crosses the sea to meet Clémence for the first time. Unlike Tristan und Isolde where strong characters are transformed by a potion, to the horror of those around them, everyone in L’amour de loin, even the Pilgrim, is complicit in the dream state, so intensity dissolves in romantic washes of chromatic color.
Saariaho’s writing works best describing images like the ocean crossing, one of the most brilliant scenes in this production where light images are projected onto waving expanses of silk. It’s less suited to dramatic rationale. Jaufré and The Pilgrim debate endlessly whether he’s mad but the point’s already made in the music. Narrative meaning is further obscured by the distortion of natural rhythm and by dropping single spoken words into lines that are otherwise sung. Richard Stokes’s t
– See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2009/07/saariahos_sumpt.php#sthash.xRPvs6rW.dpuf

Original Source: Kaija Saariaho L’amour de loin Met

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