David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: Kaija Saariaho Opera Walks On Artificial Water at the Met
Friday, December 02, 2016 - 01:16 PM
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.