As the Canada Opera Company’s February production of Kaija Saariaho’s Love From Afar gets closer my curiosity grows. I’ve seen several new operas in my time, both the ones that vanished, and the ones that have stayed in the repertoire.
What is the secret of success? I suppose the simplest (and perhaps most obvious) thing to observe is that unless the opera is good it is unlikely to survive. But being “good” is such an elusive quality –and yes you can be forgiven for saying that what I’ve said is close to useless—that producers don’t necessarily know what they have when they commission or program a contemporary opera. All I meant was that it’s not enough to be trendy or a flavour of the month. Survival is Darwinistic in the fullest sense.
With such thoughts in my head –wondering for example what motivated the COC to program Love From Afar –I watched the Finnish National Opera’s 2004 DVD of L’Amour de loin, as Saariaho’s opera is actually called. With libretto by Amin Maalouf it’s a work of many contradictions if not actual paradoxes. Its style is both modern yet grounded in what came before, premiered in 2000, yet concerning figures from long ago.
Let’s momentarily set aside the review of the DVD, directed by Peter Sellars, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and starring Gerald Finley, Dawn Upshaw, and Monica Groop. My chief focus at the moment is this new opera that we’ll be discovering soon at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.
Now that I have heard and seen L’Amour de Loin once all the way through, plus a few re-hearings, I feel if anything a little premature in giving anything like a commentary. I have seen a lot, and am delighted at the depths I am plumbing. But I am confident that my positive response is genuine and not likely to change in the years to come. I am hopeful of seeing this opera repeatedly, first here in Toronto, sometime thereafter at the Metropolitan Opera, and in future productions.
When I first heard about the subject matter of Saariaho’s opera and the small cast, I wondered –especially in the first scene—whether it was genuinely operatic, rather than a series of solipsistic moments. But I didn’t expect the many layers of meaning I would encounter.
“Love From Afar” –a fairly literal translation of the French title—encapsulates the opera on many levels.
- there’s the physical reality of the story:
Jaufré Rudel, sung by a baritone, is a Troubadour and Prince of Blaye in Europe, while Clémence, sung by a soprano, is Countess of Tripoli. A pilgrim serves to pass messages between them across the gulf that separates them.
- there are the spiritual overtones of the story:
the militant actions of the Crusades and the passionate pilgrimages both underlie this period, when men went across the world to fight for their faith, or surrender themselves to higher powers. Jaufré speaks of pilgrimage, but at the centre of this tale is the trouser role of the pilgrim, a genderless figure serving as a curious mirror to the gendered lovers whose messages are carried back and forth.
- love itself is problematized:
I find myself thinking that indeed all love is from afar, given the existential gulf between people, the gulf of faith required to make any connection with certainty. Each of the lovers deconstructs their own experience, in internal monologues questioning the meaning of love, debating different aspects of love. This makes L’Amour de loin marvellous to watch, as if each of the lovers were enacting a kind of opera within an opera. These lovers undaunted by distance enact a parable of Platonic love.
L’Amour de Loin is a very accomplished piece of work. It’s always pretty to hear, even as it flirts with noise and dissonance, so careful to ensure we’re never tired of the sweetness at the core of this work. The voices are clearly audible, never drowned by an orchestra capable of swelling powerfully but usually very wisely deployed to allow the softest nuances of vocal expression. At times the singing tiptoes into parlando (or Sprechstimme?) teasing us with the intimacy of the sentiments; we are inside the heads of our protagonists, and so we have no need for anything bombastic or forced. If your idea of “operatic” is “overblown” or “grandiose” this won’t seem operatic to you, because every moment is well-conceived and never out of proportion. In this respect Saariaho’s opera is modern even as it probes pre-modern sentiments.
Saariaho’s influences are one of the pleasures of her opera, as we hear hints and intimations of where she’s been as a sensibility. Having studied in France, it’s entirely to be expected that we hear echoes of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande or Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. I read in the program notes that Saariaho changed her mind about opera after seeing Messiaen’s St François d’Assise; I don’t know that opera at all, but did hear several clusters and combinations reminiscent of Messiaen-ic sonorities. I was also reminded powerfully of the last act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, although that is perhaps only by the implications of the scenario rather than any musical allusions.
The DVD? Those of you who read these postings may have already heard me express admiration for Gerald Finley, who inhabits Jaufré with great intensity, and offers his usual suave, clean vocalism. Who else to play a singer, if not a genuine mastersinger? I am not sure I understand the subtleties of Dawn Upshaw’s performance as the Countess; she is sympathetic, musical, but I was not in any respect overwhelmed by her performance, perhaps (for me) overshadowed by the edgy performance of her lover. Monica Groop’s Pilgrim was possibly subtler and more profound than Finley’s Jaufré; but that may be my misplaced admiration for this ambiguous role itself, which is wonderfully well-conceived, beautifully directed (credit to Sellars) and captured by the camera. Even so, I must express my enthusiasm for the opera and the DVD, unsure whether it was Saariaho who has won my heart or the performance.
There’s a great deal more to study, beginning with another look at the DVD, and later the pleasures of seeing this opera produced by the COC in Toronto in about a month’s time. I am curious to hear what Russell Braun will make of this role, considering the depth of Gerald Finley’s wonderful portrayal. Braun has assembled an impressive recent body of work, both in his Toronto appearances (including Pelléas, Prince Andrei in War & Peace, and most recently as Orestes in Iphigenie in Tauris) and abroad (Chou En Lai in the Met’s Nixon In China). Jaufré’s passing is perhaps not as transcendentally beautiful as Mélisande’s, which I consider the sine qua non, but still among the most beautiful such moments in all opera. I am eager to see what the COC and Braun can do.
I’m looking forward to this a lot!
I’ve also been thinking a lot about why operas succeed and why they don’t and I think I ended up with a Capriccio moment. Both the words and the music have to work. Since a major house is unlikely to commission a new work from a composer who’s useless that means the failure point is likely to be the libretto. It seems to me that when composers have the wit or luck to work with a librettist with a feel for the poetry in the words success is far more likely than when they cobble the libretto together themself. Compare Nixon in China with Doctor Atomic or David Harsent’s book for Birtwistle’s The Minotaur with Tan Dun’s own effort for The First Emperor.
My guess is that if Tan Dun had written the libretto for Nixon Goodman’s
would have come out as:
Thanks for the comments!
I think you make a very good point about the libretto… In recent decades we’ve seen many projects where the book seems to be the driver, such as Streetcar Named Desire, Handmaid’s Tale and Golden Ass. We’ve been hearing for a long time how expensive opera is, so one would have to think that the decision to mount a full production can’t be made lightly. I recall the fanfare over Ghost of Versailles, wondering whether that opera has enough magic to survive.
Today I saw a piece in the NY Observer concerning Enchanted Island, a piece assembled from several other works that has received mixed reviews (http://www.observer.com/2012/01/profoundly-shallow-met%E2%80%99s-island-only-intermittently-enchanting/). In passing mention is made of the ENO-Met co-production of Satyagraha, relevant because the same design/direction team is behind the baroque pastiche as behind the Glass opera. What was Peter Gelb and his team at the Met thinking, when they undertook this project? There’s an amazing (and foolish) quote you can find in that Observer piece, where Gelb says ““I wanted to play the Baroque card, but with a faster dramatic rhythm tailored to modern attention spans.”
Need I add: that is so NOT like Toronto. Where at one time Toronto may have seemed to be a provincial location to try out Broadway shows, a city without taste –and i say “seemed”–times have changed. Toronto audiences –both COC & OA– expect excellent dramaturgical and musical values, possibly because the management regularly challenges our attention spans rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator. It’s a very exciting time to be in Toronto.
I think the Met (or maybe just Gelb and Levine) have a problem with the baroque. Personally I think they should just leave it alone. A modern orchestra, a huge chorus and a 4000 seat auditorium just don’t say baroque to me (mind, they don’t say Mozart either!). To me it makes more sense for OA or Les Arts Florrissants or the like to play the BAM if New Yorkers want baroque. And if they don’t, so what!
Totally agree that this is an exciting time to be in Toronto though I wish OA would push their boundaries a bit and the Eeyore in me wonders whether COC will have the intestinal fortitude to continue on the present course given the idiotic reviews they get so often from the Toronto dailies. The Star review of Rigoletto was one of the worst pieces of criticism I have ever read.
The Met has a problem alright. Not just with the Baroque. They’re humongous, expensive to run, and therefore very political. Compare programming at the Met to the selection of an American President. How do you appeal to all demographics? you can’t. The High Definition broadcasts are a wonderful innovation and a great source of revenue, but are a symptom of a deeper problem. The Met has taken some brave steps but likely can’t be as edgy as the COC or OA, not just because of government support here, but also because their size makes everything riskier. A single bad choice (eg if you agree with those who call the Lepage Ring a disaster…i do not btw) could be catastrophic in this economy.