Kaija Saariaho’s opera, “L’ Amour de Loin” (in essence, “Love
From Afar”) was a co-commission by the Salzburg Festival and
the Theatre du Chatelet. It is dedicated to Gérard Mortier who,
in a sense, is the main reason for its existence. With the
stage director, Peter Sellars, Mortier was instrumental in
obtaining a commission for librettist Amin Maalouf (1949-). It
was also Mortier’s decision to mount this work at the Salzburg
Festival, where it was first performed in 2000. This was Katia
Saariaho’s (1952-) first opera.
The DVD I watched was from a 2004 performance by the Finnish
National Opera in Helsinki, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, with
stage direction by Peter Sellars. It was released on the Deutsche
“L’Amour de loin,” is an opera loosely based upon an actual 12th
Century character, troubadour Jaufré Rudel. This mystical tale
involves his “distant beloved,” Clémence, Comtesse de Tripoli,
and a pilgrim, Le Péterin. These are the only characters on stage
during the entire performance, lasting two hours and 13 minutes.
Although not visible, the offstage chorus also plays a prominent
role in the narration and commentary of this piece. This deeply
personal work is basically a tale of doomed love. It provides
the protagonists with ample opportunities to flesh out each
character’s issues, in great depth and detail.
The part of Jaufré is performed by baritone Gerald Finley, and
he does a fantastic job as a singer and actor. His experiences of
agony near the end of the opera are almost palpable, and the
excellent camera work does him justice. Soprano Dawn Upshaw
was envisioned singing Clémence, Comtesse de Tripoli by the
composer, and brings her ravishing, emotive voice to the role.
Mezzo-soprano Monica Groop portrays the travesty part of the
pilgrim, Le Péterin, who serves as a “go between” for the other
two characters. She is also in fine form. These characters are
supported by an excellent offstage chorus.
The score of “L’Amour de loin” was fascinating. When interviewed
as a part of the DVD bonus features, Esa-Pekka Salonen indicated
that it was primarily “color driven,” commenting that “…rhythm,
per se, is not a major component of this score.” “Spectral” is the
best term used to describe the timbre of the instruments, and the
masses of sound that shift into huge blocks of noise. The atmosphere
is nevertheless quite effective. You can also occasionally detect an
actual modal melody written by Jaufré, integrated into the work
Salonen is very good at shaping these sound forces into a
convincing statement and providing support for these singers.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As he states during his
aforementioned bonus interview, he’s been familiar with
Kaija Saariaho’s music since they were both composition
students, during the 1970’s.
In addition to “miked” orchestral instruments in the pit, the
instrumentation of this work includes a great deal of other
electronic equipment, including speakers positioned around the
audience, and a Macintosh computer using Max/MSP software.
In this case, it’s an example of modern technology put to good
use, because the results are so impressive. It would have been
helpful to refer to these aspects of the score in the
accompanying booklet or to discuss them, during the three bonus
feature interviews. These are crucial factors in the performance
of this opera. Fortunately, I was able to obtain this additional
information through research.
The modern staging by Peter Sellars was quite effective. He even
went so far as to cover the stage with approximately one inch
of water, thereby conveying the voyage of the boat traveling
between “distant lands!” A dominant central metal staircase and
minimal other props were also used.
The recorded sound was good; however, I experienced a bit of
distortion from my system, whenever Dawn Upshaw sang
fortissimo in her upper register.
The aforementioned bonus features include 17 minutes of
interviews with Kaija Saariaho, Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka
Salonen. “L’Amour de loin” is another fine piece for those who
like to explore different musical worlds. I’m that type of listener,
and I give this opera an “A.”