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S & H Opera Review

Saariaho, L’amour de loin (opera in five acts to a libretto by Amin Maalouf; sung in French; UK premiere), London Voices, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, 21 November 2002, Barbican Hall, London (CA)

Jaufré Rudel, Prince de Blaye – Gerald Finley (baritone)
Le Pèlerin – Beth Clayton (mezzo-soprano)
Clémence, Countess of Tripoli – Dawn Upshaw (soprano)


Kaija Saariaho scored a big success at Salzburg in 2000 with this opera (Love from Afar) based on Troubadour Jaufré Rudel’s dissatisfaction with his pleasurable life, his search for a faraway love, and his tragic finding of it. Equally tragic for the Countess, for she is exiled (as she terms it) from the two’s shared homeland, and she too finds her ideal in him. The sea voyage to visit her costs him dear; he dies within a very short time of them meeting. The pivotal role is that of the pilgrim, who alerts Jaufré that his vision does, indeed, exist, and who acts as go-between, confidante and observer.

When Radio 3 broadcasts this 130-minute opera on 26 February, it will be interesting to hear how it stands up to being sound only. Even in this concert performance, with occasional add-on costumes (Finley donned scarf and overcoat to go to sea, for example), a stage divided in half for the two kingdoms (male choir and blue light for Aquitaine, female voices with yellow and green for Tripoli), and all-important surtitles, it was difficult to sustain interest in the whole. The surtitles were the one sure way of keeping in touch with the story. The tale is simple enough, the emotions expressed are timeless (though the opera is specifically set in the 12th-century), yet Saariaho’s music doesn’t always sustain the narrative. First impressions, and I think it’s more Saariaho’s under-characterising than a deficiency on Finley’s part, is that although Jaufré comes across as sensitive and good, he is neither noble or deep. He is given the lyrical, high-art music worthy of a "poet-musician". Dawn Upshaw presented Clémence as altogether more vivid – more emotional, more identifiable; somebody one could feel for. Beth Clayton made a big impression in terms of singing; presumably her impassive rendition was intentional, which suited the pilgrim’s even-handed position as broker. This character is referred to in the text as a male but is assigned to a mezzo for no reason that the composer seemed able to explain (in an unadvertised and concert-delaying talk). Add in an unexpected interval for a long evening.

Saariaho uses a large orchestra. She adds electronic sounds that are subtly diffused as part of the orchestration. Acts 1 to 3 (70 minutes) and the remaining two are through-composed and linked by orchestral interludes. Once into the opera’s slow-moving stride, and allowing that every timbre is microscopically notated, I did yearn for more variety. A plentiful palette of colour is heard, but over this time-span something grittier and more differentiated is needed. I tired of tinkling percussion long before the opera finished. This aural dreamscape ravished the ear, and the composer has polished it to perfection (and seemed wonderfully realised by the BBCSO), yet it was too unchanging over too long a time, though dip in at any point for a captivating soundbite.

Stylistically, Saariaho is closer to her domiciled Paris than her native Helsinki. Yet spirit of place isn’t really Saariaho’s concern. She creates a world of sound that might be precise in terms of the page but is otherwise somewhat nebulous, unearthly, which an aggregation of electronic-like tones in the orchestra helps create. One could cite works like Debussy’s Saint Sébastien, Holst’s Hymn of Jesus and Szymanowski’s exotica; equally I was reminded, certainly in Clémence’s despairing music towards the end, of Tippett in terms of expressive floridity. This enchanted panorama also suggested Birtwistle’s Gawain; yet he creates a much stronger profile and sense of theatre. I don’t seriously suggest that Saariaho had any of these creations in mind, for there is little to suggest them as influences; it’s more a case of coincidence, and me hoping to suggest something of her music’s flavour. Add some ‘local colour’ in the form of the original Carmina Burana (recognisable from Orff, but here divorced from him), and a soupçon of medieval gyrating, for Saariaho’s breadth (or limitation) of identity and resonance.

The storyline as I have suggested is a simple one. We identify with and share the emotions of Prince and Countess. Yet, although the surtitles maintained interest, the text (as translated to English) is of well-worn exclamations that may be timeless but are also clichés. About twenty minutes before the actual close there seemed a good place to stop – namely Jaufré’s death. Understandable that Clémence should then recite her recrimination and sadness, but did we need to share it, or, more importantly, shouldn’t the music have conveyed it far more grippingly than it did? Dawn Upshaw brought something extra to sustain things.

Under the lucid and sympathetic conducting of Robert Spano, the performance seemed wholly excellent. The jury is out, and the broadcast is diaried, but I’m inclined to think that L’amour de loin needs a full and imaginative staging, perhaps involving film, to really make an impact. (Peter Sellars directed the Salzburg premiere. One can only imagine what he would have done. Maybe a DVD will be forthcoming?) For all the craftsmanship of the composer, and the commitment of the performers on this occasion, L’amour de loin does not seem to be one of those stage works (like, say, Wozzeck, Peter Grimes or Gawain) that have a life outside of the opera house. It’s those operas’ powerful sense of imagery and involvement that L’amour de loin seems curiously lacking in.

Colin Anderson

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