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.