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.