Saariaho: L'Amour de loin

ENO, Williams, Rodgers, Sherman/Gardner

The Coliseum, 5 July 2009 4 stars

PascaAlthough the spectacular new staging by Daniele Finzi Pasca (with sets by Jean Rabasse and costume design by Kevin Pollard) was prominent in the telling, and highly lavish in aspect, it was the music that took centre stage at the UK premiere of Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin at the Coliseum last night.

Though the more grainy, esoteric structures of microtone and timbre found in some of her other music are largely sublimated into a more public sense of music-dramatics here, the opera is nevertheless imbued with a delirious sonic palette that flows fluidly through event, form, and character. From the subterranean strings which framed a cavernous sound space throughout the show, to the repeated and evolving motifs (each of which are symbolic of characters in the piece) in piccolo, in piano, and in harp, to the striated high tones of wind and electronics in the final passages, the music communicated an awesome profile.

The orchestra were thrilling, accurate in detail, and forward in display. The strings have surely rarely sounded as fused as they did here, in sustained lines as much as in the muted spectral sonorities or the wooden thrashing required intermittently of them, and the brass frequently stepped in to the complex sound arrays to deliver vivid trellis arabesques. The wind players were precise and fluent. Their music is pivotal to the fluorescent tone-colours of the score, and so any wayward intonation or ensemble would have been ruinous, but thankfully this was avoided with skill. The conductor Edward Gardner confidently outlined a shifting liquidity in the sound, always agile, and always dynamically primed for the numerous volcanic explosions that punctuate events in the narrative.

In L'Amour de loin a drama is imagined around the real medieval troubadour Jaufré Rudel. It features only three main characters; the troubadour from Aquitaine, the Princess Clémence who lives in Tripoli, and the enigmatic Pilgrim who relays messages of love between them. As I remarked in my interview with the composer, the opera is an existential exploration that deals primarily with the internalisation and self-reflexivity of love (the two protagonists only meet for an instant at the end of the opera). It focuses not on the end, but on the journey, and on the strange fascination of unknown love.

The libretto by Amin Maalouf is expertly conceived, humorous (which not many in the audience seemed to pick up on), lyrical, sensuous, and intelligent. Memorable lines and images abounded, from the tree that cried incense, to Jaufré's lament to the nightingale at the start that his words only spoke to other words and not to other people, to the Pilgrim's veiled irony when talking of a gossip (who was actually herself). Credit too should go to Richard Stokes, whose translation was largely fluid and rich.

The work is an operatic tragedy that constantly both revelled in the tropes of Wagnerian storytelling techniques (i.e. the gesamtkunstwerk concept, here vivid across media of costume, dancing, acrobatics, set, and, particularly, music), and undercut those tropes with distinctly modern touches. The Pilgrim (an Ariel figure whose frankly odd behaviour as cupid is conducted in thrall to an unknown compelling force whose absence to the audience actually ensures the character’s enigma) encourages Jaufré in his wild idealised visions of a love 'noble without the arrogance of nobility, and beautiful without the arrogance of beauty.' In the next scene we have that idealised love not refracted or reflected, but centre stage, weighing up and making a nonsense of those judgements. The weighting of the narrative seemed all wrong too; after a brief journey at the start of the second half, suddenly the male protagonist dies. A brief scene with his apparent beloved, with the expected deus ex machina unforthcoming, seems to set up either a redemption for love, or a tragic conclusion. But instead we get twenty minutes after this event where Clémence unconvincingly, with the music rolling violently around her throwing up echoes and revulsions of the earlier motivic material, decides to dedicate her life to God. The proportions and details seem all askew.

l'amourThrough its circumscription of event and its richly referential music and libretto, the opera seems to parody operatic tropes as much as it explores them. It is imbued with irony as much as it is tragedy; Clémence’s statement at the end that she was now 'the widow of a man she never knew,' was typical of how the work constantly undercut itself, being both musically and dramatically humorous, bathetic, and affectingly poignant at the same time. Reflections on the nature of love, of self, and of death, dominated any possible conflict or redemption that might have taken place.

The opera thus has a wonderfully delirious character. This is enhanced by the sumptuous prolificacy of Pasca's staging; dancers and acrobats shadow the singers, creating a multiplicity of dramatic horizons that was used to good effect here, suggesting shadings and echoes of a character when they are being invoked by others on stage (much as the music does). Excellent use was made of the full height of the Coliseum, with dancers and singers often being raised up to the heavens on large moons or swings or fabric. The sets were, like the shiny and spangly costumes and make-up, dazzling. Complex and immersive projections (the wispy columns and clouds that overlaid two figures in the distant landscape journeying to Tripoli in the introduction to the second half were particularly effective) sat comfortably alongside simple devices such as the small projection screen managed by the two jesters (who themselves added another element of confusional aesthetics).

The singers dealt well with the unique character of the work and the effusiveness of the staging. Joan Rodgers' voice was secure in a difficult part that requires musical versatility and emotional depth. She was creative with the line, and made good use of her expansive dynamic range. Roderick Williams has a fine voice, even if it sometimes lacks something of the colour and charisma of a contemporary like Gerald Finley. Here he grew in strength to a peak of burnished virility in his self-laceration on the journey in the fourth act, and lyrical legato singing in his death scene. Faith Sherman's portrayal of the Pilgrim seemed to be the hit of the night. She certainly brought character to the assumption, colourful in her interactions with the others, and affecting at the end, and of all three characters she made the most of Saariaho's wonderful sleights of hand between arioso and speech at the ends and beginnings of some lines. The male chorus somewhat overpowered Williams in the opening act, though they were vibrant there as the voice of nature, but later the women and men gelled much more comfortably with the rest of the musicians.

The heroic frenzy of the staging risks both overburdening the music with figuration, and over-literalising the impressionistic dramatic and musical palette. I think it just about got away with it, though. Pasca succeeded, perhaps, primarily because of his eye for the expressively over the top, and the conviction with which his beautiful and ludicrous visions were realised. The music, just about, shone through, and through, the marvels of the staging. The blinding lights of the end were a stunning parallel to the bold and expressive isolated sine tones that skein out the end of this astonishing, albeit peculiar, work.

By Stephen Graham

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SaariahoRelated articles:

Interview with Kaija Saariaho
Opera Review: Kiarostami's Cosi fan tutte
Opera Review: Eno's Punch and Judy at the Young Vic
Opera Review: Minghella's Madam Butterfly at ENO