First encounter with L’Amour de loin

First encounter with L’Amour de loin

 L’Amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. Libretto by Amin Malouf, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Finnish National Opera Orchestra, director Peter Sellars. Gerald Finley as Jaufré Rudel, Dawn Upshaw as Clémence, Monica Groop as the Pilgrim + two choruses.

The troubadour Jaufré of Aquitaine is in something of a mid-life crisis, wondering what his poetry, friends and merry nights out are good for. He dreams of a far-away woman, but when the Pilgrim tells him he had met a woman that matches his ideal, everything else in Troubadour’s life pales: l’amour de loin becomes his purpose. The Pilgrim goes on another trip and once landed in Tripoli, he talks to the princess Clémence about a troubadour who loves her and sings his songs to her. She falls in love. This continues on both sides until the Troubadour decides to undertake the trip with the Pilgrim. He has a significant dream and being of Tristan-y stamina, in the course of the trip falls mortally ill. Before he dies, he reaches the princess. Their fears about their first encounter dissolve and it’s a scene of mystical unification just moments before his death. Clémence, now left alone, seeks answers from God, reaffirms her love of Him (or is it to Jaufré and the earthly love that she prays, it remains intentionally ambivalent). Tomorrow she will join the convent.

The original production by Peter Sellars is rather unimaginative—the two lovers’ worlds are the two spiral staircases shown successively on each side of the stage and divided by water (ankle high, but a good stand-in for oceanic distances). The production we’ll see at the COC next year is a different one, however: the Flamish-ENO-COC co-production will be anything but minimalist.

Saariaho’s music is often described as the music that creates timbres and atmospheres, so that’s a big part of the staging as well.  In the liner notes Saariaho mentions Pélleas and Mélisande as an influence, but whereas P&M draws me in its peculiar elaborate world and makes me eager to stay in, L’Amour is an atonal opera of the kind that never lets you leave the edge of unpleasantness. Saariaho is also, it is often said, interested in exploring (and undermining?) the line between the sound and the noise, and this is very present here: there are many orchestral interludes that may be mistaken for the orchestral tune-up noise. There are also many occasions when the sound becomes one big unified orchestral abstraction which is then slashed through with a line of color with an instrumental solo or an unexpected change of tempo in a sectional onrush.

Whereas Gerald Finley made his vocal part chocolate-y and warm-coloured, I found Dawn Upshaw’s Clémence trying. I am not sure if it’s the singer or the role itself at issue. Saariaho basically composed the whole thing with Dawn Upshaw in mind (at that point, she had composed three other works for Upshaw), so I presume she wanted that kind of voice quiddity. She has Clémence singing consistently in very spiky intervals. First two syllables, say, somewhere mid G-key, then the next syllable kilometres higher on the stave and dissonant of course; then back to the old range for the fourth syllable. Then again a high syllable, then low-low. (My next homework task is to take a peek at the score and see if the soprano line will poke my eye.)

When a role is almost nothing but these screamy intervals, the singer must find the way to make it not sound like a shrill punishment. I got hold of the L’Amour de loin CD and in it Ekaterina Lekhina sounds fine. So…I’ll continue exploring, and see what Erin Wall will make of the role in February. A Twitter-friend sent me a link to Karita Mattila singing a similar piece by Saariaho and that also came out not too jarring.

The most important character in the opera—dramatically, if not musically, as her music is meant to reflect musical material of the other two characters—is the mezzo-sung Pilgrim. S/he makes the Troubadour fall in love with the Princess, and seduces the Princess for the Troubadour by singing his poetry. S/he is the traveler and navigator, somebody who knows ways and maps. S/he is also the character who gets to sing the showstopper, Jaufré’s paean “L’amour de loin” to the Princess. Now, call me a tonal sucker and you won’t be too far off, but the only piece that’s been on repeat on my CD player was this tonal segment, in which Saariaho sets the troubadour’s actual poem to medieval and renaissance musical vocabulary—makes it sound like it might have sounded then but of course never neglecting a modernist, contemporary prism. It’s utterly utterly gorgeous. It lasts about 7 minutes, after which the Princess herself continues singing in this mode for some minutes before she returns to her atonal self-doubts and reasons why she is undeserving of troubadour’s love.

I’m sure I’ll be revisiting L’Amour de loin again before the COC premiere next year as there’s so much in it still to explore. (I’ve completely neglected to mention the librettist’s other writing. Next time.) Meanwhile, here’s the ENO video trailer of the production. Ours, luckily, won’t be sung in English.


15 thoughts on “First encounter with L’Amour de loin

  1. Thanks so much for reviewing this! I have yet to listen to L’Amour de Loin, but have long been fascinated by it because of its medieval subject matter (as well as, gasp! a woman composer!) Can I have a medievalist nerd-out moment about Jaufré Rudel here? I don’t know how much may have been included in accompanying essays for DVD/CD; I would love to hear Saariaho talk about how she found, used, and transformed her source material. The thing about Jaufré Rudel is that we “know” about what happened to him because he had a biography written about him by Marcabru, another member of the community of singers who wrote for/about each other. This always sends me into a mental whirl trying to figure out where the “life imitating art or is it vice versa” cycle begins.

    Anyway, Saariaho seems to follow the biography rather closely, according to which Jaufré was a prince of Blaie who fell in love with the countess of Tripoli without seeing her, through the good things which he heard said about her by the pilgrims who came from Antioch! He becomes a crusader because of his desire to see her, takes ill, and is brought to an inn in Tripoli for dead. He dies in her arms (7-minute operatic ecstasy) and she enters a monastery. I’m fascinated by Saariaho’s distillation of the pilgrims into a Pilgrim who, as a trouser mezzo, seems almost to embody the courtly love aspirations of male/female lovers trying to share body and soul (cf. again Tristan and Isolde.) But is the pilgrim at peace? There is a huge quantity of scholarly literature on medieval pilgrimage, motivations behind, liminality and/or community of. No, I don’t want the opera to be the equivalent of a scholarly article or three… but it seems to reference so many medieval ideas (and modern theories about the medieval) that could be engaged/commented on. I find this so exciting! …as if you couldn’t tell.

  2. Marcabru, what a name! (Almost Macabru) What do medieval biographies look like, I’m dying to know?

    And you are right–it’s an extremely rich text. The CD liner notes are not particularly helpful, but the DVD has a book and the bonus interviews. They all (Saariaho, Sellars, Salonen), however, talk about the practicalities of the work coming together, and I do wish Saariaho talked more about her “creative process”. Apparently, Sellars was the one to suggest the librettist since he had read his books on the Crusades as seen by the Arabs, and his novels. Sellars’ take is that the opera is all about how closely intertwined West and East are, exact opposite of the Clash of Civilizations idea, etc… which is an accurate and fine approach, but I think he was completely tone deaf to the poetry and medieval cultures aspects of the work. (“I told Kaija when she asked me, gee, I am American, I know nothing about the French Middle Age” and his demeanour in the video said “nor do I care”)

    She says he used to tell her “Yes, I appreciate telling me your ideas about the staging, but don’t expect me to be bound by them”, but then she adds, at the end the staging looked “exactly like I had dreamed it would.” Well… I don’t know. But they did work together again, on Adriana Mater, so what do I know.

    Saariaho also said that after the work was done, she realized she dramatized the two personae she had to learn how to reconcile in her own life–the composer (“It’s almost impossible to be a woman composer. It requires all of you, and women are usually tied with other obligations as well”) and the woman (living away from her home at that; KS lives in France and not in Finland).

  3. I agree, Marcabru is a great name. 🙂 Much of his extant output consists of politically satirical poems, so I find it interesting to find him writing Jaufre’s history, that of a knight and a lady who are–for once–interacting with each other and their social environment in ways which Marcabru approves of, even if they aren’t always understood by the others in the narrative. Anyway! Biography, excepting that of saints, was a fairly uncommon genre. Pious and successful kings sometimes got biographies, and the occasional pious and successful nobleman, but it was rare as a stand-alone genre (not to say that saints’ vitae don’t mingle personal traits with genre tropes; having a hagiography also be a trustworthy biography could be important in getting a process through the papal curia.) As for this particular biography, I know nothing of its manuscript history, I’m afraid. About Jaufre’s own songs there is vigorous debate. Interestingly, one of his well-developed ideas is that of being cured by love, which it’s believed he must have gotten from the Muslim poets of Spain, since Ovid wasn’t circulating in southern France in the 1140s. His mysterious poems about his mysterious love were very popular; numerous MSS survive. Recent scholars have, in contrast to Marcabru’s version, suggested that Jaufre’s love was allegorical. Possible, but I’m inclined, in this case, to trust medieval reception, which seemed convinced that it wasn’t.

    Thanks for the added information! The interaction and intertwining of West and East is also a really interesting idea to follow. (I wish Sellars’ apparent attitude towards the Middle Ages surprised me.) Also interesting comments from Saariaho… I love the idea of her process creating characters from internal tension. One person (aspects of) becoming two, instead of the other way around. I really will have to look this up and see how the libretto works with the poetic source materials, presuming it does.

  4. Ah, but of course, I’ve forgotten the Kings and Emperors. Their bios were probably a sub-genre of history writing (as were the hagiographies… I can only imagine a hagiography approval process with the Curia…), but still no less biographies. Somehow I thought the idea of Individual in the modern sense(s) must have pre-existed for biography as a genre to emerge, but what probably happened is the democratization of possible subjects of biography… somewhat, at any rate. Nobody writes bios about anonymous people even today. (Though Paul Auster in his otherwise unremarkable novel Brooklyn Follies has a character bent on doing just that: founding a bio writing agency dedicated to the anonymous citizenry of NYC.)

    So interesting. And now I want to go find some old Occitan poetry. I hear it’s not that difficult to read for anybody with a reliable reading French.

  5. It’s true, Occitan poetry isn’t that hard to read through… and lots of it is online here: “Did the Middle Ages discover the Individual, and if so, when?” has been a lively debate for a while now. The rise of biography as a genre would be a really interesting subject to examine; I’ll have to ask modernist historian friends if they know anything about it. Biographies of the anonymous sounds like a concept that would enliven any novel.

  6. oooh, a woman warrior! i guess you can tell i know nothing about music, esp when i go further to say it sounds a little bit like John Adam’s works, but less headache inducing! I didn’t hear much in the clips above of what you mentioned here, “When a role is almost nothing but these screamy intervals, the singer must find the way to make it not sound like a shrill punishment”, but the comment immediately brings to mind madam Mao. Last time i got such a headache i had to turn off the tv set 1/2 way through the nixon opera (even though i think Kathleen Kim was brilliant.)

    ps- on totally unrelated note, maggie smith is brilliant!! “I aaaime in my prime!”

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