Met Opera's "L'Amour de Loin": Far Out

Susanna Phillips in "L'Amour de Loin"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

L'amour de Loin, the new Metropolitan Opera co-production with L'Opera de Quebec, in collaboration with Ex Machina, is newsworthy on several counts. The Music is by female Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the Libretto by Amin Maalouf, and it is performed under maestra Susanna Malkki in her Met Opera conducting debut. It was first produced at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, and is now being given its American premiere. A short opera (just over two hours), it consists of five brief acts alternating between Blaye in Aquitaine and Tripoli (modern Lebanon). It's a typically startling Production by controversial designer Robert Lepage, with some spectacular (and some not) lighting effects.

The love story, literally about “love from afar” in the mid-twelfth century, is that of Jaufre Rudel (bass-baritone Eric Owens), Prince of Blaye, who yearns for a distant love though resigned to the unlikely reality that he will ever find it. A chorus of his companions (under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo) mocks him about this as he informs them that his true love doesn't exist. However, a Pilgrim (mezzo Tamara Mumford) who has arrived from overseas claims she does exist and that he has met her. Jaufre then can't get her out of his mind. When the Pilgrim returns to the East he tells the Countess of Tripoli, Clemence (soprano Susanna Phillips), that she is celebrated in song by a troubadour prince who calls her his “distant love”. She is at first offended, then warms to the idea, but doubts she is worthy. The Pilgrim returns to Blaye and tells Jaufre that Clemence now knows of his singing, so he decides to visit her in person. Both have a sort of approach-avoidance going on, his being so intense that he falls ill on the ship he takes to meet her. He arrives in Tripoli dying. The Pilgrim precedes him in order to inform Clemence that Jaufre has arrived but that he is at death's door, on a stretcher. Their mutual attraction revives him as they promise to love one another forever. But forever is often not a long time in opera, and Jaufre expires in her arms. Raging against heaven, and blaming herself for his tragic end, she resolves to enter a convent. The final scene finds her at prayer, ambiguously directing her words either to her distant God or perhaps her far-out lover.

Despite its brevity, this work is a demanding challenge for all three soloists, since they share together the bulk of the singing (other than the choral work). Owens, who has impressed in recent Wagner roles, makes a commanding presence, Mumford is suitably intense, and Phillips has some lovely music to perform. Much of it was repetitive however and not very memorable. The HD Host was the ever-dependable Deborah Voigt, and the opera was Directed for HD Broadcast by Gary Halvorson. The Set and Costume Design were by Michael Curry, with Sound Design by Mark Grey, Lighting Design by Kevin Adams and Lightscape Image Design by Lionel Arnould. Much of the LED lighting was, after a while, a bit like contemplating one of Boston's landmarks, the Citgo sign.

This was an unusual outing for the Met, but one that will undoubtedly find an audience, given its theme, its rarity, and above all the often approachable musical composition. Perhaps a concert version without so many visual distractions might help. It's a bit too premature, given one hearing, to say with certainty, but it may deserve to find a place in the company's repertoire. And maybe not.

L'Amour de Loin” will be rebroadcast Weds. Dec. 21 at a theater near you.

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