L’Amour de loin premieres at the Met

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, which premiered at the Met last week, posted a grand collaborative synergy between composer, conductor, orchestra, soloists, director/designer, tech staff, and, ultimately, all those present in the house.

L’Amour is an experience that plays out, for the most part, on the fuzzy border between waking and dreaming. The language, which should lean us more toward the former, is poetic, lyrical, repetitive, speculative, even aside or circling around the point.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho

But Saariaho’s music speaks volumes, fascinating complex polychromatic volumes of sound; conductor Susanna Mälkki, in her Met debut, draws magic from the marvelous Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Welcome! For long stretches one loses track of time, placing L’Amour in the same corner with Parsifal, Pelléas et Mélisande, Einstein on the Beach, and some other operas not as frequently performed as these. It's not musically equivalent, don't get me wrong, but phenomenally so. You get the drift.

Robert Lepage, whose Ring production, personal opinion, often clashed with Wagner’s orchestral colors and scenic demands, is on safer ground here: the main element is water, actually and metaphorically the gulf between the lovers, sometimes the shore, sometimes the open water of the Mediterranean Sea at night. This all works just fine because Lepage seems to love a black backdrop. His light show staging starts rather slowly, but gradually builds in emotional power in conjunction with the music and the drama. Particularly impressive is the opening scene of the second act (as staged, Act IV as written): the waves of the sea at night, as the dying Jaufré and the Pilgrim journey to the castle of Clémence, are very effective, indeed the entire second act is engaging visually to complement the final meeting of the “lovers.”

A dream image at sea at night in Robert Lepage's production of  L'Amour de Loin

A dream image at sea at night in Robert Lepage's production of L'Amour de Loin

Clémence, in French meaning clemency, compassion, forgiveness, is a name repeated by Jaufré over and over once the Pilgrim reveals it. He conjures her from afar, he writes poems, as if she is a psychological state he seeks to grasp. Or has she the attraction of a state of love and death? Susanna Phillips, in a clear and expressive voice, projects the complicated conflicts and doubts, the risks of an unknown love, ultimately the torment of losing Jaufré at their ultimate meeting. How could a good Lord allow this to happen to him? Or to her? Clémence’s calm is shattered and Phillips rises to the moment! Brava Phillips!

Susanna Phillips as Clémence, with female chorus below

Susanna Phillips as Clémence, with female chorus below

A buff Tamara Mumford is the Pilgrim, the go-between for the lovers. She, and the male chorus who pop up out of the lights for Jaufré, intrigues him about the existence of the perfect woman; she and the female chorus who pop up out of the lights for Clémence, then intrigues her about the troubadour who writes such lovely lyrics. The Pilgrim is a central role, and quite long actually. Mumford triumphs.

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim

Eric Owens is Jaufré, the poet weary of frivolous delights who seeks a more contemplative, perfect love, even if never realized in the flesh. Owens’ rich baritone fills the house with Jaufre’s longing, doubts, griefs, and sadness at his impending death. Bravo!

Some of Lepage’s trompe l’oeil effects work: the bark on the distant sea appearing to be as far back as a dark night on 10th Avenue is one. But some do not: the sea gulls are really pretty lame and the green thing leaping out of the waves in Act II, as in "wait, what is that?" coming ever closer to stage front is…well, look, Jaufré is dreaming…never mind. By the time you realize what it is, the effect is clumsy, careful body handlers notwithstanding. Like Lepage's staging of Loge in Das Rheingold.

Kaija Saariaho’s fascinating score will linger with you; the Met’s new L’Amour de Loin is an aural/visual/emotional experience you’re not likely to soon forget. Don’t miss it.

For the record, or more correctly, for the DVD, the Salzburg world premiere video on DG is musically, vocally and dramatically competitive, but it’s essentially a count-the-molars and fillings kind of perspective. The sets aren't much to look at, so...Here’s hoping the Met’s HD telecast captures Lepage’s mise-en-scène in its fullest.

Reviewed performance date: December 6, 2016.

Photos: Ken Howard

Toujours L’Amour!