Saariaho’s ‘L’amour de loin’ at the English National Opera

Love Across Time

Last week, in London’s Coliseum, which is the early 20th-century English interpretation of a Roman theatrical arena, quaint with SPQR decorations and patriarchal busts amid red velvet Victorian luxuries and dark wood, I was fortunate to see the English National Opera’s performance of composer Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar). ENO has contemporary productions to die for.

It’s always great to see new opera, not only because it is of our time and therefore relevant no matter what its historical setting, but also because the work doesn’t come with a lengthy performance history. Its challenges are fresh and full of potential. A still-wet-behind-the-ears opera that premiered in the United States at the Santa Fe Opera House in only 2002, L’Amour de Loin had its world premiere in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival.

Saariaho’s atmospheric and complexly emotive music sets the words of Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf in an interpretation of the life and songs of the 12th-century prince and troubadour Jaufré Rudel, who falls in love with Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, a woman he has never met. In the opera there is only one other character besides the two idealistic lovers—the pilgrim, a pivotal role, who fans the love between the two by creating in each one’s mind the image of what he or she most desires: “She is fair without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, devout without the arrogance of piety.” The pilgrim, who travels the long ocean between troubadour and countess, shortens the distance between the lovers by being a conduit for their erotic imaginations.

The theatrical challenge of the opera is how to enliven a series of events that exist in the imagination rather than in action. To meet this challenge, ENO chose Daniele Finzi Pasca to direct both stage and production. Finzi Pasca works in “physical theater”—a new designation for performances that focus on what the body, rather than speech, can tell; it includes practices such as mime, acrobatics, aerial dance and clowning. The Cirque du Soleil is perhaps the most famous among practitioners of physical theater. Finzi Pasca created that company’s Corteo.

Love Embodied

Finzi Pasca concentrates the action of L’Amour de Loin in six phantom actors, two for each singer, which are listed as the spirits of the characters. These spirits weave in and out of the geometric “walls” of the sets, float through the air of the upper stage, and inhabit the shadows of the projected imagery of the ocean that the troubadour and the pilgrim finally cross to bring reality to the love that Jaufré and Clémence bear for each other.

Some of the imagery created by this mix of spirits and physical theater is cinematic in effect, its illusions igniting wonder in the observer. In the interlude between acts 3 and 4, a huge circular grid, like that of an ancient map, is projected across an upstage scrim. The spirits of Jaufré and the pilgrim trudge across the map; their bodies, suspended horizontally, appear, below it and distant, as if seen by the viewer in bird’s-eye perspective.

The production changes the balance in the opera. Music and voice are no longer the sine qua non of the piece but rather part of the blend that supports the metaphor of the opera, that of love as a haunting, a compelled voyage toward an unknown.

Holding their own against the production’s formidable graphics were the very fine baritone Roderick Williams and richly toned soprano Joan Rodgers. The part of Clémence was originally written for Dawn Upshaw, and Rodgers’ voice has similar color in the upper register. Her middle and lower registers are darker and weightier, but that tonal quality fits this production, and her voice overall is undeniably beautiful.  The same comparison could be made between Williams’ voice and that of the original Jaufré, Gerald Finley. William’s voice is endowed with graceful warmth. Faith Sherman, full-toned and fluid, ably sang the role of the pilgrim. The libretto, surprisingly, was translated into English.

One rather rickety piece of theater was the hand-cart-sized puppet theater that was moved around the stage, on which the story’s action was enacted in shadows before each act—a rather coy device that unfortunately was not very visible beyond the stalls (front orchestra seats) of the Coliseum. Even so, the production was thought provoking and splendid, and made a fitting tribute to Saariaho’s exquisitely conceived opera.

Listening to L’Amour de Loin, I couldn’t help equating the lovers’ yearning to that of the artist, who, motivated by some inner longing, sets out to discover and uncover the work of art, struggling to realize in some material form the perfection that lurks in the shadowy realms of her unconscious mind. As I got up from my seat to leave the theater, I saw that Kaija Saariaho had been sitting behind me. When she realized that I recognized her, her gaze slid away from mine, and I was left wondering what voyage toward which new love she had now embarked on.

—Jaime Robles

The English National Opera begins another intriguing opera season in September 2009 with six performances of Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre at the London Coliseum. Information at www.eno.org.