I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the images from Kaija Saariaho’s opera Amour de Loin in its Toronto production from the Canadian Opera Company as “Love from Afar“. When I hit the publish button the other night to upload my review, I knew I had much more to say.
I was wrestling with the music, the spirituality, the images in the COC production by the team of Daniele Finzi Pasca, Julie Hamelin, Jean Rabasse, Kevin Pollard, and Alexis Bowles. Happily my scattered thoughts suddenly are cohering around one central idea.
My first instinct had been that this was an opera that was so platonic, so abstract, that it was entirely a matter of soft ideas that needed warm bodies to flesh them out. And so the production is replete with several physical disciplines –dance, aerial movement, acrobats and swirling fabric– to add some sensuality to balance this cold world. But upon further reflection that’s simply wrong and to say so sells their efforts short.
So of those three (spirituality, music and images), let’s address the images first. The mise-en-scene employs three different performers for each of the three principals (Jaufré, Clémence and the Pilgrim). Even though Jaufré and Clémence are separated by hundreds of miles for most of the opera, that doesn’t stop the production from presenting a version of either of the lovers, possibly hovering behind them on a string, possibly wandering upstage in the shadows. At times we may only see one Jaufré, at other times two or even three. Sometimes this may seem entirely whimsical, as if we were seeing the imaginary Clémence inside Jaufré’s head; or it becomes much closer to something more literal when we see Jaufré looking down upon himself on his deathbed, as if his spirit were walking away, looking back at its former home.
Romance is a risky kind of discourse. Whereas the messages from emergency personnel have no room for ambiguity, the language of a lover is like a leap into the air, that risks a fall. If the communication fails it falls to its death, whereas the ability to reach someone when speaking figuratively is a kind of miracle we take for granted. All communication that isn’t literal makes a kind of leap, challenging us to identify with the message, if it isn’t to fall on its face. The aerial figures, the floating souls, the romantic propositions are all up in the air, supported by our imaginative capacity, our willingness to see more than just the bodies.
Love from Afar hints at different sorts of love. When we first meet Jaufré he is taunted by the voices of his friends (real or imagined in his head?), reminding him of a more sensual understanding of life and love. As the opera continues, particularly in its last scenes, we are invited to contemplate love that transcends life and the spiritual overtones of love as a pathway beyond this life. The opera can be read as an alternative theology if we think of love itself as a divine energy, that spirit itself is the love from afar. Throughout the opera we encounter that phrase –“love from afar”– presented in different contexts, and are invited to read it in so many different ways.
Finally–having spoken of the upward movement of the bodies and their spirits– I wanted to remark on Saariaho’s music. It’s a remarkably simple thing to observe in the score: that many of her phrases are constructed from the bottom up. Sometimes there are ostinati (groups of repeated notes), often going up from a lower note. At other times, the larger phrases are constructed slowly, beginning with a low note and leading ever higher. The music has an upward arch, not really as the tight arabesque one might find in Bach or Debussy, but rather in broadly separated sounds. That’s especially important because Saariaho’s dissonances rarely have the blunt impact they’d have if clustered closely together, as one might find in Berg, and muted even further by her orchestration.
It’s a simple thing really, but Love from Afar wants to take us up. And I think it succeeds.