By Lynne Gray, PhD
Note: This opera will be streamed to www.metopera.org for 23 hours.
Wednesday, May 6
Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin ~ 2 HRS 21 MIN
Starring Susanna Phillips, Tamara Mumford, and Eric Owens, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. From December 10, 2016.
The Met has presented only two operas by women in its entire history: Ethel Smyth’s “Der Wald,” in 1903; and Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin,” (“Love from Afar”) in 2016 – 15 years after its remarkably successful premiere in Salzburg. Happily, the Met recently signaled that it would begin to correct this dismal record by commissioning operas from such accomplished female composers as Missy Mazzoli and Jeanine Tesori. We’ll see!
This production also features another long overdue event – the Met debut of conductor Susanna Mälkki. Mälkki is an innovative modern musician at the top of her form – a crucial requirement for conducting this “spectral” score, written with almost no underlying rhythmic pulse. She was able to elicit the score’s very precise sounds in ways that were responsive to both the drama and the singers. The key aspect to appreciate in this very contemporary music is the ‘texture’ of the sound, which is often quite complex. In spectralism, the notion of a chromatic scale is completely abandoned in favor of taking sound (in all of its complexity) as the building block, and then music becomes the art of manipulating sound. In this way, timbre takes a prominent role. According to Tristan Murail, this music “is ultimately sound evolving in time.” In other words, for most of us, we will have to hear it to understand how different – but how beautiful – this new music can be.
Saariaho’s ideas for the opera evolved over nearly eight years. She had been living in Paris since 1982, and was the only woman who worked at IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’s trailblazing research institute for electro-acoustic music and the science of sound. IRCAM was where Saariaho refined the extraordinary ear for timbre and texture that has become her signature as a composer. It was there that she also become familiar with La vida breve by one of the first great 12th-century troubadours, Jaufré Rudel. She first set a Jaufré poem to music in Lonh in 1996, for soprano and electronic instruments. Then, having secured an advance commitment from Salzburg Festival director Gerard Mortier to stage the opera, Saariaho began L’Amour de loin in 1999. In a 2019 poll of critics for The Guardian, “L’Amour de loin” was ranked the sixth greatest classical music work of the 21st century.
Production designer Robert Lepage and set designer Michael Curry have filled the entire Met stage with spectacular ribbons of glimmering LED lights that extend across the full length of the stage and even over the orchestra pit. Strip after strip of thousands of twinkling LED’s stretching across from one side to the other are mostly used to represent the sea, but they also surround the strange mechanical structure that represents each of the lover’s home coasts. “Lightscape image designer” Lionel Arnould paints constantly shifting washes of color that vary from evocative abstractions to almost realistic representations of the Mediterranean. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and suits Saariaho’s music to a “T”. Again, there is just no way to describe it in words – or even in still pictures – since it is a constantly changing and moving “lightscape.” You will just have to look at it yourself!
Eric Owens (we’ve seen him lately in Porgy and Bess and in Das Rheingold) is Jaufré Rudel, a troubadour in 12th century Aquitaine who has become tired of his hedonistic life as a privileged nobleman and longs for an idealized love. A Pilgrim (Tamara Mumford) tells him his perfect love does, in fact, exist, but that she is far across the sea. Her name is Clémence (Susanna Phillips), Countess of Tripoli (on the Mediterranean in modern day Libya). The magic of the characters’ inner lives as each explores (from afar) the meaning of love, longing, life, and death is beautifully described by Saariaho’s hypnotic score. “When I started to write this piece, I had to draw on all the musical resources I had used up till then, and all my experience,” she recalled. “I felt that I needed to stretch my music in different directions.”
There is precious little to the plot of L’Amour de loin. As we have seen, it is very loosely based on the legend of a French troubadour prince, Jaufré Rudel (c. 1100-c. 1147), and it tells of Jaufré’s idealized love for a woman he has never seen – Clémence, countess of a Crusader colony on the other side of the Mediterranean in Libya. Messages move back and forth over the sea – carried by an unnamed, androgynous, seafaring Pilgrim until Jaufré can stand it no longer and must undertake the fateful journey to at last meet his love.
And you must also undertake the journey to see and hear this one for yourself – once again words completely fail to describe anything close to the sights and sounds of this groundbreaking modern opera.
1. Susanna Mälkki, principal guest conductor at the L.A. Phil and chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Picture Credit: LA Times – Chris Lee.
2. Susanna Phillips and Eric Owens in Robert Lepage’s production of L’Amour de Loin at the Met.
Picture Credit: Beatriz Schiller.
3. “L’Amour de Loin” at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit… Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera.
4. Tamara Mumford as The Pilgrim in Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit… Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera.
5. Eric Owens as Jaufré in Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit… Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera.
6. Eric Owens as Jaufré and Susanna Phillips as Clémence in Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit… Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera.