Saturday, May 27, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Love Across Space: The Poet As Hero" (on Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin)

love across space: the poet as hero

by Douglas Messerli

Amin Maalouf (libretto), Kaija Saariaho (composer), Robert Lepage (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) L’Amour de loin / 2016 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin is only the second work ever by a woman at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a sad statement made even worse by the fact that the last woman-composed opera was 1903, and shared the credit with a male composer. In conductor Susanna Mälkki, another Finn— who will soon be coming to Los Angeles as the Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—Peter Gelb and the MET have made yet further history; there have been only a small handful of women conductors at the Lincoln Center shrine.

      Thankfully this lovely opera with just three characters and chorus will likely mean more out-reach by the MET to find contemporary women and male composers who can combine interesting narratives with exploratory music; and with the enlightened direction of Mälkki, perhaps other women will rise up to replace maestro James Levine. 
      That is not to say that Saaiaho’s music is highly experimental: she is no Iannis Xenakis or even John Cage. Her work lies closer to Philip Glass, but with a highly shimmering quality that can be traced back to Debussy and Messiaen, a quality she shares with younger contemporary American composers such as Missy Mazzoli. Yet, as Deborah Voigt commented in introducing yesterday’s performance, Saariaho’s work is very much her own voice.
      After his seemingly maniacal and almost menacing use of a vast stage machine in Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung a few years ago, Robert Lepage, working with Michael Curry, has here created a sea of thousands of small LED lights strung at various heights, and which, in their luminescent flickers, quite match the musical score.

The central figures, the 12th century Aquitaine troubadour poet, Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye (Eric Owens) and Clémance (Susanna Phillips) spend most of the opera on a fork-lift kind of machine that moves, like the MET’s own HD camera, in numerous directions, representing the outcrops of land that meet up with the endless sea upon which the Pilgrim (Tamara Mumford) voyages back and forth between Aquitaine and Tripoli.
       Tired of years of joyful singing and partying, Rudel, at the opening of this opera, is ready to explore a new kind of life, a love that, much like Wagner’s representation of love in Tristan and Isolde, is pure—love for someone beautifully exotic and, even more importantly, far off. It is, in fact, the kind of love many Westerner’s developed with Asia and Arabic countries throughout history, a love of something the lover imagines as representing strange ecstasy (not so dissimilar from the Isabelle Eberhart as portrayed in Mizzoli’s opera, Song from the Uproar, or, in literature, the Bowles’ devotion to Morocco). 

       Endlessly traveling, the Pilgrim (herself a kind of androgynous figure who links these two worlds and brings a quite sensuous story-telling to Aquitaine) tells Rudel that there is indeed such a woman, who lives in Tripoli; and the poet, touched by the Pilgrim’s descriptions, quickly sets about writing songs to his new idealized love, beautiful pieces which the Pilgrim conveys—despite Rudel’s displeasure—to Clémance as well. 
      For her part, Clémance is not sure that she can at all live up to the stranger’s visions of her, yet she is touched by this totally abstract love, yet also wishing that she might see her distant lover as he declares such passionate and pure thoughts.
        Of course, opera divas throughout history have been wooed through their lover’s ballads, but few operas have put poetry and the poet himself in such a lofty position. And I laughed inwardly at the thought of a “Poet as Hero” in a world such as ours, in which the poet is seen more as an effete fool.
       But Rudel might also be described as a kind of effete fool, who, after hearing of the faraway lover’s enjoyment of the Pilgrim’s summary of his “perfect” poems, suddenly begins to long for actually seeing Clémance and possibly consummating his now encompassing love.
     Unfortunately, traveling across the shimmering waters, which change color from moment to moment, he grows ill, and by the time he and the Pilgrim arrive in Tripoli, he is near death.
       Despite that fact, men carry him on a palette to her home, and briefly revived, he sings of his love for Clémance, and she for him. In the last throes of dying, he praises his fortune for simply having been able to hold her near him and accept a kiss.
       Clémance, now truly in love with this pure soul, prays to God for his survival; and when he soon dies, she curses Christ for not saving the hero, arousing the wrath of her local community fearing that her blasphemy might result on the wrath of God.

Gradually, the now chastised Clémance, determined to enter a convent, begins to perceive that her new relationship with the distant God is analogous to the faraway love she has had previously with Rudel. She is, as all religious novitiates must become, now ready to “marry” God and to serve him from “afar.”
       The singing by all three leads and the chorus was quite glorious, and despite some slow moments, the music seldom failed to create a sense of wonderment.
       By the end of this beautiful opera, it became clear that Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf’s libretto was not only about love from afar, but about imagination and perception, about a love of something and someone outside of one’s own experiences, a love of the other and difference—important reminders in this time of increasing demand for the likeness and sameness of our culture and lives.

Los Angeles, December 11, 2016

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