On the evening of March 12, 1903, New York’s Metropolitan Opera presented a Wagner-tinged, one-act opera in German titled Der Wald. The English composer was a woman, Ethyl M. Smyth, who believed a German libretto would ensure a more serious reception (perhaps even a place in the Met repertory) than an English one. It was to no avail, as Der Wald remained the only opera composed by a woman and staged by the Met for 113 years — until the Dec. 1, 2016, debut of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s transcendently luminous L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar).
Sung in French, Saariaho’s work premiered on Aug. 15, 2000, at the Salzburg Festival. Directed by Peter Sellars (reportedly because Canadian Robert Lepage was unavailable) and conducted by Kent Nagano, the performance also featured Americans in the lead roles of the lovers from afar, Countess of Tripoli Clèmence (Dawn Upshaw) and lyric poet Jaufré Rudel (Dwayne Croft). One can’t help but wonder why, with such broad casting of Americans in the premiere production, it was another 16 years before L’Amour de Lion received an American staging. When it did, it was one daringly different from the one in Salzburg.
Here is a trailer for the Met Opera Live in HD theatrical transmission of the Saturday matinee last December:
The orchestral forces were large, reflecting the opera’s sonic Messiaen-like lushness, a counterpoint to the intimacy of the story, to the three-character cast, and to the highly reductive set: principally 33 rows of more than 28,000 programmed LED lights, three of which were strung the width of the orchestra pit. The production was directed by Lepage, whose recent staging of the Wagner Ring cycle had the newly reinforced Met stage lumbering under a 45-ton, rotating “Valhalla Machine” that confounded many Wagnerian traditionalists, IATSE Local 1 stagehands, and even the orchestra itself, which had to compete with the grinding dissonances of the machine’s mechanics.
Lepage’s cutting-edge Ring production offered a preview of the intersection of opera and technology-driven staging that came to fruition in his staging of the Saariaho opera. Here is a clip from a documentary about the “Valhalla Machine” set, a window into Lepage’s ever-expanding vision:
Committed to using new technology in the service of theater, Lepage discussed the LED set for L’Amour de Loin — as well as some of the pitfalls he encountered with the Ring cycle — with the New York Times.
He also talked about it in this interview:
The second part of L’Amour de Loin began with an orchestral prelude that employed the full array of LEDs in hallucinogenic patterns that evoked the swells and ebbs of a storm at sea.
In the Met production, the role of Jaufré was sung by bass/baritone Eric Owens, and that of the Countess by Alabama-born soprano Susanna Phillips. In this clip, Phillips rehearses a passage in intricate detail — just the title words. (Sorry, I don’t know the name of her accompanist.)
And here is Phillips singing from her cantilevered “tower,” part of her final prayer as The Pilgrim in the foreground pulls Jaufré’s shrouded body across the sea to the underworld moments before the final curtain.
Adding dimension to women’s dynamics in Saariaho’s opera is the conductor, her fellow Finn Susanna Mälkki.
In this clip, Mälkki is interviewed during an intermission by Illinois-born soprano Deborah Voigt, the Brunhilde of the Lepage Ring. Phillips recalls being overwhelmed when she attended the Salzburg world premiere.
It is no accident that I have highlighted just how many American artists are part of the history of this opera. The cliché of large-bodied, spear-chucking foreigners dominating opera is exactly that: a hoary cliché. If you follow the obsessive milieu of opera lovers even a little, you become acutely aware of how strongly represented American voices and artists are in today’s opera world.
When you have time, you may want to listen to this 24-minute discussion between journalist Naomi Lewin and opera dramaturge Cori Ellison. They offer fascinating insight into Saariaho’s artistic journey in creating L’Amour de Loin, her first opera. Very much present is the influence of the metaphysical tonal shimmerings of Messiaen, as well as Saariaho’s recollections of studying at Paris’ experimental music institute, IRCAM.
It may seem like a broad leap to connect the arcane world of Saariaho’s music to that of Ingmar Bergman’s movies, but that is precisely what the composer does in this video interview. (Her orchestral tone poem Laterna Magica takes its title from Bergman’s autobiography, which Saariaho read shortly before the director died in 2007.)
To hear the intricate instrumental colorings and complex percussion scoring of Saaraiho’s music in person brings another dimension to your listening pleasure. This BBC Proms performance of Laterna Magica is introduced by Saariaho, who briefly explains the inspiration for the piece. (If you want to skip the intro, the performance itself begins at 3:00.)
Key to the plaintive hauntings of much of Saariaho’s vocal music, including L’Amour de Loin, is the chorus, which is mostly unseen in Lepage’s staging at the Met; the massed human voice is transcendent inside the orchestral array. Debussy and Messiaen must be looking from the Empyrean with smiles.