Saariaho (L')Amour de Loin
Kaija Saariaho’s first work for the lyric stage (Salzburg, 2000) looks set to establish itself as one of the most significant and successful operas of recent decades. Premiered in a Peter Sellars production (under the baton of this recording’s conductor, Kent Nagano) that travelled quite widely, it has survived the crucial test of other stagings, including one at ENO last summer. It’s easy to understand its appeal, even if L’amour de loin does sometimes seem to resemble Pelléas et Mélisande without the jokes.
Saariaho’s hypnotic score combines with a poetic libretto by Lebanese-born writer Armin Maalouf to exquisite effect. The result is not, it must be said, the most dramatic opera, but then neither is Pelléas or Tristan und Isolde, pieces in which music works powerfully on the imagination. And there is a sense in which the Saariaho-Maalouf work, which translates as “Love from afar”, also belongs to the tradition of Debussy’s opera. The five connected acts are inspired by the tale of a medieval Provençal troubadour named Jaufré, who visualises the Countess Clémence of Tripoli as the epitome of chaste love. A Pilgrim criss-crosses the Mediterranean carrying messages between the two distant lovers but when Jaufré finally summons up the courage to sail to Tripoli he is taken ill while at sea and dies on arrival in the arms of Clémence.
Saariaho has declared herself uninterested in the concept of courtly love and prefers to see her work as a more modern, wider meditation on love. Her delicate music, superbly realised here by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Nagano, reflects this in the same way that Maalouf is able, like Edward Said, to look beyond the clichés of Orientalism. The fine cast features American baritone Daniel Belcher as a lithe, musical Jaufré and Russian soprano Ekaterina Lekhina as a delicate and languid Clémence. Not surprisingly, the Montpellier-born Marie-Ange Todorovitch boasts the best French as the Pilgrim, yet the cast works very well together in a perfumed piece so meditative and purely musical in its essence that I find myself preferring this CD to the earlier DVD based on Sellars’s staging.