Saariaho (L') Amour de loin
L’amour de loin (‘Love from Afar’) enacts the legendary love of the 12th-century prince and troubadour Jaufré Rudel (about whose real life precious little is known) for Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli, whom he has never met but whom he voyages to meet, only to expire almost as soon as he and his beloved have declared their feelings for one another.
The symbolic resonances are immense, on the cultural as well as the psychological level. They are the stronger for the fact that Amin Maalouf’s libretto does not belabour them but rather spins itself organically out of Jaufré’s poetry. Perhaps it is the combination of male librettist (an exile from Lebanon) and female composer (Finnish-born but long resident in Paris) that helps make both poles of the seemingly improbable courtly love relationship so strikingly believable; that, plus the role of the Pilgrim go-between and the unseen chorus, acting variously as goad, comforter and conscience.
Saariaho has composed a staggeringly beautiful score, one whose overwhelming, rich colours will come as no surprise to those who know her work but whose rhythmic and melodic directness may well. Its motion is predominantly slow and meditative but with considerable tension in the travelling scenes and, like Maalouf’s texts, a wonderful way with elaborating on troubadour melos and blending electroacoustic and instrumental elements. Other pluses are George Tsypin’s striking minimalist designs and the directness and simplicity of Peter Sellars’s direction. All three principal singers are consummate vocal actors, their performances simply beyond praise.
Questions arise only if we want to talk about a masterpiece as fine as, say, Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus. L’amour de loin is an opera by a composer with a longstanding suspicion of the genre, who herself admits that ‘action is scarce [and] the tension comes mostly from the inner lives of the protagonists’. That tension proves more akin to free-floating anxiety than to the dilemmas of choice and growth through inner exploration, by which even the most interiorised of operas stand or fall, and I confess to some doubt as to whether there is enough of that kind of drama to fill Saariaho’s chosen time-span.
Given that the staging is constant – merely illuminating (in fabulous colours, admittedly) one part or another of it – the impression of stasis ultimately feels more like a flaw than a necessary given. Having savoured the beauty of the sets, there is really little else for the eye to take in. So what I feel we have here is a potential masterpiece in the Erwartung or Duke Bluebeard’s Castle line but whose natural duration might be 40 minutes rather than 140, and whose true place might even be as a cantata in the concert hall.
Nevertheless, this is a DVD to commend to anyone interested in contemporary opera, and it comes with short but worthwhile interviews with director, composer and conductor. Heard through hi-fi speakers, the recording does magnificent justice to Saariaho’s sonic imagination.