Friday, July 10, 2009

Kaija Saariaho: "Love from Afar": Finnish opera opens the 21st Century

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Finnish National Opera on a Deutch Grammophon DVD of the 2000 opera from female Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, “L’amour de loin”, or Love from Afar. The libretto, in French, is by Amin Maalouf.

It’s easier to appreciate the work first in terms of its building blocks: the visuals and the sounds. The staging (directed by Peter Sellars) is mostly abstract, and seems other-worldly, suitable for science fiction. In the opening act, the longing lover Jaufre (Gerald Finley) sings on a metallic staircase that looks like a DNA helix. The colors start with blues but change later to oranges and reds. Then the boat itself is abstract, a white geometric form in a featureless sea, almost as if it were an object from “The Matrix.” The DVD itself opens with a waterside picture of the Helsinki opera house, complete with geometric angles.

The setting takes place in the 12th Century, in France and in Tripoli and at sea, but it seems to the viewer that it could just as well take place on Solaris, in another solar system.

The music to me sounds a bit like Ligeti, although the solo singing is loud. To me it sometimes sounds more like the atonality of Boulez than of the Viennese composers (although a couple of times it recedes to the mood of the ending of Wozzeck). Sometimes the music sounds declamatory.

The plot comes across as a schizoid fantasy, and perhaps a paradox, exploring “aesthetic realism”. A troubadour longs for real love, and yet clings to the notion that a perfect woman afar exists. The Pilgrim is the intermediary with the actual woman Clemence (Dawn Upshaw). The troubadour will fall into ill health out of his questionable search, leading to tragedy. Yet he sings “I want to live again” as the Pilgrim attempts CPR!

At the end, the performers wade on a stage covered in sea water for the applause.

The composer had been influenced by Messian’s opera “St. Francis of Assisi”.

The DVD offers several interviews. Sellars says that the opera shows the connections between East and West and counters the idea of a "culture war." Kaija Saariaho says that she came up with her own treatment of the story, originally with five characters, and had some difficulty determining what the music for some characters should be. Salonen talks about physical and tone color changing constantly and abou the "slowness" of the music.

I recall that when I was “coming out” in 1973, there was a gay bar called “The Troubadour” on the Upper East Side then. I don’t know what became of it.

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