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S & H International Opera Review

Kaija Saariaho, ‘L'amour de loin’ , (U.S. premiere) Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, New Mexico,. Robert Spano, conductor. 31st July 2002 (HS)


Dawn Upshaw, Clémence
Monica Groop, The Pilgrim
Gerald Finley, Jaufré Rudel.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho lives in Paris. I doubt it's a coincidence that it's the same city where a century earlier Claude Debussy wrote his only opera, ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. There are plenty of parallels between Debussy's opera and Saariaho's. Both concern the psychological workings of an ill-starred love affair. Both plots are easily summarized but laden with symbolism. And, most significantly, both use a musical language that, on the surface at least, seems gauzy and is mostly delicate.

All those thoughts came to mind as ‘L'amour de loin’ spun out its two hours on the stage of Santa Fe Opera, which always includes one premiere among the five operas it presents in its summer festival. This one has a big advantage with the gorgeous voices singing the opera's three roles. Canadian baritone Gerald Finley sings Jaufré Rudel, a 12th century troubador who falls in love with a princess across the sea purely on the description provided by The Pilgrim, played by Finnish mezzo-soprano Monica Groop, best known for her work in early music. American soprano Dawn Upshaw plays Clémence, the princess who is the love from afar.

The story, told in five acts (really scenes) without intermission, is based on a real 12th-century troubador and a real princess, about whom he wrote rhapsodic songs. In the opera, The Pilgrim takes word to the princess of these songs, and she begins to dream of this distant lover. Learning from The Pilgrim that the princess now knows of his songs, the troubador resolves to go to her. On board ship, his anxiety makes him mortally ill, and he has only a brief scene with Clémence before he dies. Clémence, in recrimination, decides to enter a convent. What makes the story work is the interior monologues and dialogues that reveal the psychological landscape roiling under it all.

Saariaho writes in a mostly tonal language, complex and often dissonant, but never hard edged. She weaves electronic sounds through the orchestral texture, sometimes eerily anticipating an orchestral sound with the electronics, which emanate from back and side of the open-sided theater. She also uses two choruses, placed on opposite sides of the orchestra seats, sometimes to represent an unseen crowd but more often to add extra texture to the overall sound. She writes long, grateful lines for the singers.

Her music is at its best in the first scenes, when she paints the picture of the troubador and his idealistic love, and the final scene, when the troubador and the princess finally meet. You can sense the sexual tension throbbing below the surface. In the middle scenes I found too much of a sameness, but that did set off the extended final scene in even greater relief. When the troubador regains consciousness only to find himself with the princess as he is about to breathe his last, the music takes on an other-worldy feel. Upshaw's final scene, as she veers from anger at God to a sort of contrition, is just a few shudders shy of a mad scene. With it, ‘L'amour de loin’ finally becomes a real opera.

Peter Sellars directed, with his usual emphasis on externalizing the big psychological moments. An arresting scenic design by George Tsypin floods the entire stage with 3 inches of water. A transparent canoe-like boat, lighted from inside with green neon, carries the Pilgrim back and forth between two spiral staircases that rise out of the orchestra pit. Until the climactic final scene, Jaufré and Clémence do all their singing from these staircases, moving up and down. This staging has the advantage of putting their voices closer to the audience, adding presence and clarity to their French.

But I worry about the singers splashing around in the water, especially Upshaw, who rolls around in the final scene and ends up totally drenched, taking her bows in a huge terrycloth bathrobe. The weather was a pleasant 70° F. on the night I saw it, but what happens when the temperature dips 20° F. lower, as it easily can do in Santa Fe? That can't be good for the voice.

Harvey Steiman

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