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Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim [Photo by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera]
06 Dec 2016

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

A review by Margaret Darby

Above: Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim

Photos by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

 

Kaija Saariaho is a composer fêted the world over and the United States has been a bit tardy in perceiving her charm. (The opera’s premiere was at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 and the Santa Fe Opera produced it in 2002, but Darmstadt, Bern, Bergen, Toronto and Quebec all beat the Met to the punch.)

Saariaho is Finnish and studied at the Sibelius Academy.  She then struck out for the avant-garde study centers of Europe: Freiburg, Darmstadt and then Paris where she worked at IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’ famous institute for experimental music.  At IRCAM she worked with composers who experiment with combining electronic sounds with acoustic music. The term spectral music was first used to describe the style by Hugh Dufourt, a philosopher and composer, in 1979, but recently the term has been resuscitated and Saariaho’s growing fame and popularity has brought the term to a popular frenzy.

The Met opera production by Robert Lepage is a visual masterpiece. Photos cannot convey the almost palpable illusion of water created by rows of LED lights. The show began with a total blackout — including the orchestra pit — then tiny lights appeared like small twinkling stars — then the dots of lights grew into shimmering lines of light which resembled ocean waves. A beautiful verse in Amin Maalouf’s libretto based on the history and songs of a twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel (sung by Philadelphia’s bass-baritone Eric Owens) has Jaufré ask of the Pilgrim (sung by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford) “Why is the sea blue? Why is the sky blue?”

Eric-Owens-as-Jaufre-Rudel-and-Susanna-Phillips-as-Clemence.--Photo-by-Ken-Howard_Metropolitan-Opera.pngEric Owens as Jaufré Rudel and Susanna Phillips as Clémence

Susanna Phillips, the soprano who plays Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli, the unrequited and unknown love of the troubadour, has lovely pure high notes and it is a good thing because that is mostly what she gets to sing. The part of the Pilgrim has a much more melodic score. Rudel’s first songs are quite hard to hear in the very lowest part of his range, but the score for his duets with the Pilgrim and with Clémence were clearer.

The program notes by Cori Ellison, a dramaturg at Glyndebourne Festival Opera and a member of the vocal arts faculty at Julliard School, contain some outrageous sentences like:  “The dearth of apparent action through the opera’s two hours is mirrored in the illusion of musical stagnation, by now a trademark of Saariaho’s music.”  Don’t let that scare you, I stayed awake for the entire show.  Ellison also wrote the subtitles, which were interesting at best. Lines like “he is my outremer” kept appearing. (“Outremer” means overseas in French and I suspect the message was that Clémence’s fascination with Rudel was due to the fact that he was a foreign exotic.)  The wordplay in the original libretto by Maalouf of the word “clément” and “Clémence” also came out rather awkwardly in English, but that would have been tough to render.

The orchestration was the highlight of the opera. Bassoon lines came through as wavy and oceanic, the oboe took the dreamy and twinkly phrases and the electronic sounds of the keyboard added mystery, as did the watery, pedaled notes on the piano. The strings were used to enhance the ethereality. There was little brass in the score, but the piccolo provided strategic punctuation.

Another coup for this production was to have a woman wield the baton. Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, in her Met debut, managed to form a composite of the ethereal sounds and kept the pace as much as possible, although even she was challenged by the tediously long ending. The warm hug between female composer and female conductor on the Met stage was a historic moment for women in music. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Toscanini.

L’Amour de loin is a stunning achievement but I cannot help feeling that Saariaho’s chamber music seems more structured than her orchestrations.  The performances of her string quartet Terra Memoria and her trio Mirage for soprano, cello and piano, each of which I heard at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, left a more indelible musical impression on me than L’amour, but the production is well worth seeing. Don’t worry about the dearth of action; it is the lot of most troubadours. Think of poor old Tristan.

Margaret Darby

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