Review: Kaija Saariaho Opera Walks On Artificial Water at the Met

Friday, December 02, 2016 - 01:16 PM

Eric Owens as Jaufré Rudel and Susanna Phillips as Clémence in Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin. (Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin is one of the operatic wonders of our time, though the best efforts of the Metropolitan Opera didn't always reveal that to Thursday's opening night audience.

Saariaho's 2000 opera made its first appearance in New York without the wading pool of Peter Sellars's world premiere Salzburg production, but with a vividly colored artificial ocean created by some 28,000 LED lights — characterizing the vast expanse separating the opera's medieval French troubadour from the Countess of Tripoli whom he has never met but loves on the basis of description. Their intermediary is a figure of ambiguous gender known only as The Pilgrim in this simple, parable-like plot.

Literal dramatic credibility matters little here: Saariaho's score characterizes the emotional and spiritual ecosystem around these characters with harmonically sumptuous music, built on solid bedrock, but often without a clear trajectory or destination. This is music for lost (but not isolated) souls that makes you wonder if you're just like them. But gravity is never lacking. The great Act IV prelude comes in burst after burst of orchestral sound, as if the music is moving aside tectonic plates to claim its place. An electronic layer in the orchestration suggests the unseen forces with whispers whose intelligibility is just out reach. Is it any wonder that the biggest applause of the evening went to Saariaho herself when she bowed at the end? Much of the cast and creative team was greeted receptively, but as if the listeners knew they somehow weren't getting the full effect.

Though director Robert Lepage had some boos (maybe leftover protests from his high-tech Ring cycle), his dreamy production mirrored the opera's simplicity with parallel bands of LED lights creating aquatic effects from ripples to storms to sunlight on the water, each more magical than the last. Between the light bands, singers piloted small boats, chorus members surfaced and miniature figures appeared suggesting a view from afar. At one point, soprano Susanna Phillips literally walked on water (or at least this stylized version of it). There were moments of physical awkwardness when singers were moving about the set. But the opera's action is so often stationary (as opposed to static), did movement matter much at all? Having known the opera for years (and seen two different productions of it, including one in Bern Switzerland that traded oceans for an indoor Victorian library), I can say this production was that deeply attuned to the unfolding textures of the music at hand in a way that few are.

Not so for conductor Susanna Malkki, who often failed to project the underlying tension in the opera's many collage effects. The chorus was muted and mushy, and the electronic element felt clunky and not well integrated into the overall sound picture. It's possible that this music needs to bounce off the walls of wherever it's heard. And at the Met, the walls are rather "loin."

Among the singers, only Tamara Mumford gave a fully realized performance, projecting the Amin Maalouf libretto with such poetic clarity that you barely noticed how seamlessly vocalized her singing was. Phillips was a handsome presence and was in good voice, but didn't fully project her capitulation to the troubadour when he arrives in Tripoli near death. Eric Owens was simply miscast as the troubadour — it's best sung by a baritone and he's more of a bass — and, in one of the few staging misjudgments, was saddled with a lute that not only got in the way but was an incongruously literal touch in a package that so successfully went to the heart of the piece. 


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Comments [4]

If this review is accurate, I can only assume that there was a enormous improvement between opening night and yesterday's performance, which I saw as "Live in HD". All three singers were in top form and sounded great; Eric Owens' voice seemed, to me, perfect for the role (which, admittedly, I had never heard previously). Susanna Malkki's conducting, while difficult to assess on a first hearing of a work, seemed to coax magnificent sound out of the (always magnificent) Met orchestra. My only quibble is with the strange ladder that seemed out of place, and, even more, anachronistic. I loved the "pop-up" chorus.

Dec. 11 2016 02:05 PM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

Having heard Ms. Saariaho's 'Adriana Mater' at Santa Fe several years ago, as well as some of her orchestral works and a few recordings of her music, I have a general idea of what to expect from her sound world. I had mixed feelings about 'Adriana Mater', but I was glad that I saw it, and I have the same general expectations for 'L'amour de loin'. I plan to check out the HD-cast this Saturday, if all goes well. Plus, if nothing else, the Met and Peter Gelb get opera brownie-points big time for staging this opera, and including it among this season's HD offerings. Of course, the movie house will be sparse as a consequence, I expect.

(PS: This inclusion of 'L'amour de loin' in this season's HD-offerings doesn't make up for Gelb's unforgivable omission of 'Dialogues des Carmelites' several years back, as well as his continual repeating of the same old fare year after year ('La boheme', 'La traviata', 'Madama Butterfly'). But I digress.)

Dec. 06 2016 02:25 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I've never heard anything written by Ms. Saariaho; and therefore my only knowledge of "L'Amour de Loin" comes from this article by Mr. Stearns and that by Mr. Tommasini in "The New York Times". I'm going to give it a chance by listening to the broadcast; and if it holds my attention, I'll be listening to the end. The story interests me and the description of the musical style even more so. Apropos this, I miss very much seeing short musical examples in reviews, (copyright permitting), especially of new works. I haven't seen same even in London's newspapers' musical reviews, either nowadays, which is a great loss to music lovers, in my opinion, as well as practically never any mention of the standard repertory's great arias by the current Met radio commentators.

Dec. 05 2016 02:24 AM
OperaDon from NEW YORK

Having been to the dress rehersal and opening night, I would give this opera much higher marks than David does. I found the entire production dream like and give high fives to Lepage and his team for the lighting effect that works well in a big house like the Met. Probably best enjoyed from he further back and higher up seats. At the dress rehersal I too wondered if this role was right for Owens, but last night he proved his worth, especially I thought in the second half when he poured his heart out to the Countess, Susan Philips, who also sang brilliantly. Five stars here....

Dec. 02 2016 06:11 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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