Love from Afar at the Canadian Opera Company, seen on February 4, 2012. Music by Kaija Saariaho, libretto by Amin Maalouf. Conductor Johannes Debus, production by Daniele Finzi Pasca. Krisztina Szabo (The Pilgrim), Erin Wall (Clémence), Russell Braun (Jaufré Rudel).
What a gem, this production.
The tone is set by the shimmering sails of turquoise cloth that slide down from somewhere from the fifth ring over the heads of the audience down to the stage. The entire production is airy that way, with winds permanently caught in clothes and rustling sea waves, and heavier objects like walls or thrones or humans suspended above ground. (While Peter Sellars’ anchored, immobile production with real water is, in comparison, exactly the wrong way to go about this business.) Russell Braun spends a lot of the time in the air, which makes his character that much more vulnerable. Jaufré has nothing to go on but his visions.
This can’t have been a very expensive production (as the main elements of the set are the lighting, artfully manipulated cloth and a video projection) but it’s an extremely rich production, once again showing that wealth of imagination and intelligence matter more than the amount of money invested. (The Met, take note.) By tripling each of the principal roles with non-singing figures, Finzi Pasca added layers to characterization and increased the drama in many of the scenes. Sometimes these silent doubles identically dressed as the singing principal only hover around as shadows, but other times they are busy following their own scripts. This is most effectively used in the dying Jaufré scene, in which the singing Braun and Wall share the stage with Braun’s double lying on his death bed and Wall’s doubles silently coming in to hold his hand one by one.
Jaufré’s long passage to Tripoli in Act 4 – potentially, and in Sellars’ production definitely, a slow, soporific segment – was made exciting by having Jaufré and The Pilgrim stand before a large screen with a video of a speedy ride across the tumultuous sea, so pleasantly hypnotic that you almost don’t want it to end.
A lazier director would have divided the visual imagery into West for Jaufré and East for Clémence, but in this production there’s a happy promiscuity of East-West connotations, likely due to the understanding that the East and the West were as impossible to divide cleanly in 12th century as they are impossible to disentangle now. An early Jaufré costume looks a bit Dervish-ian and his doubles in one scene dance like Dervishes. The Pilgrim’s esthetic is loosely Japanese, whereas Clémence abounds in Persian accents. When they finally meet, however, Jaufré and Clémence wear simple robes in all white and orange respectively. It’s the hour when the lovers come out to each other and it’s also the hour in extremis, so their costumes are appropriately silent.
There’s nothing to object in either of the singers. Braun’s baritone is not all smooth chocolate but its ruggedness and firmness rather work, and Braun acts well and just the right amount. Erin Wall’s spiky lines did not poke and she managed to make the high interval jumps of her soprano role sound like portamenti. Krisztina Szabo’s Pilgrim was in rich and flexible voice, a stable centre to the drama’s binary. Johannes Debus and the orchestra of the COC played the Saariaho’s score intimately, one thrilling moment at a time, and never for a moment let the listener tune out or predict what’s coming next.
Top: Krisztina Szabó as the Pilgrim (centre) and Russell Braun as Jaufré (above). Photo: Michael Cooper.
Middle: ErinWall as Clémence (centre) and acrobats Antoine Marc and Ted Sikström (back, left to right). Photo: Chris Hutcheson.
Bottom: Russell Braun as Jaufré (downstage left), acrobat Evelyne Allard (back, left), Erin Wall as Clémence (back, centre), acrobat Annie-Kim Déry (back, right) and Krisztina Szabó as the Pilgrim (downstage right). Photo: Michael Cooper.