The love one encounters in Saariaho’s opera Love from Afar is not at all like the love most people think of when they use the word in the 21st century. And while the work was composed recently employing very modern sonorities, it’s poised on the edge of our world as if it were an ambassador from another era.
Tonight was the night for its first embassy in Toronto, a special occasion for the Canadian Opera Company. With one of the longest ovations in recent memory it’s fair to say that the Canadian debut of the work was rapturously received, with the composer present to take her bow.
I think this may be the most equivocal libretto I have ever encountered. Nobody says anything declarative without qualifying, interrogating, doubting, second-guessing. Only at the very conclusion are the doubts set to rest. Until that point each of the lovers—namely Jaufré Rudel, minstrel & prince of Blaye, and Clémence, Countess of Tripoli—are in a kind of debate with themselves, doubting and wondering about a hypothetical love. Going between them is the third figure of the Pilgrim who is the catalyst for the action of the opera. Whether we think of the most blunt proposition or a subtle love poem, the discourse of love is risky. The drama underlying Love from Afar concerns the soul’s fear in hazarding such risks.
The disparity between the world presented in Saariaho’s opera and our own world is an unavoidable piece of subtext. We’re accustomed to seeing physical desire objectified in media, while subtler sentiments rarely get their turn. Love from Afar does not come from a culture of instant gratification, even as it addresses itself to a modern audience.
While it’s not how love is usually understood by 21st century lovers, i was still thinking, hm, isn’t all love really from afar? There’s an enormous gulf between people, even when they’re not a thousand miles apart but only 36 inches. At times the production brings the separated couple into a hypothetical proximity, as each lover contemplates the image of the other at various moments. We’re encouraged to wonder at the sights before us, questioning the reality of the spectacle, just as lovers deconstruct their own perceptions, seeking something genuine and lasting.
The co-production with English National Opera & Vlaamse Opera is among the most visually flamboyant pieces of theatre I’ve ever encountered, from a team including Daniele Finzi Pasca (Conception and Lighting Designer), Julie Hamelin (Creative Associate), Gabriele Finzi Pasca (Associate Director), Jean Rabasse (Set Designer) and Kevin Pollard (Costume Designer).
The stunning presentation includes shadow puppetry, aerial performance, acrobatics & dance, an awe-inspiring array of colours and some CGI, on top of the usual musical disciplines in opera. The production team decided to use three performers for each of the dramatic figures (Jaufré, Clémence, and the Pilgrim), including the one singing the operatic role. Jaufré is sung by Russell Braun, Clémence by soprano Erin Wall, and the Pilgrim, by mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó.
My first impression when I saw the pictures in advance of the production was to think that this was a display suggesting a lack of confidence in the work itself, a kind of over-compensation. I had seen a DVD of the work with a more restrained mise-en-scène, and was thoroughly won over by Saariaho’s score, even if I did suspect it might be too platonic for some people, too theoretical.
But when you think of it, why shouldn’t an opera production make a strong case for the work being presented? We’re accustomed to using our imaginations in any opera, from Auber to Zemlinsky, and this one is no exception. The visuals may grab you, but they still engage imagination, never giving us anything remotely literal, and often taking us into a decidedly poetic realm.
I am certain that Love from Afar will not appeal to everyone. The people sitting immediately in front of me left at intermission (giving me a better view). It’s a rarefied sort of work in some respects, reminding me of Pelléas et Mélisande for its textures and for the spirituality of its story, with strong echoes of Tristan und Isolde in a much quieter idiom.
All three of the principals were good. I was most impressed with the vocalism of Szabó in the androgynous role of the pilgrim, an enormous role that she sang with great clarity, and very much in awe of Russell Braun as Jaufré, who once again gets to play a very moving death scene. In addition to his unshakable conviction in the role, and his delicately nuanced singing, there was also the additional matter of his aerial work, which was spell-binding.
The other big star was Johannes Debus with the COC Orchestra & chorus, wonderfully solid playing this modernist score, sweetly resounding throughout.
Love from Afar continues for another seven performances, concluding February 22nd at the Four Seasons Centre.