Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s much-praised 2000 opera has a darkly shimmering beauty to it, and director Robert Lepage has created a gorgeous production for its Met premiere that leans powerfully into that shimmering quality. Lepage and set designer Michael Curry have draped strip after strip of LED lights across the immense Met stage. With those strips, “lightscape image designer” Lionel Arnould paints constantly shifting washes of color that vary from evocative abstractions to almost realistic representations of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and suits Saariaho’s music to a “T”.
There’s precious little to the plot of L’Amour de loin. Very loosely based on the legend of French troubadour prince Jaufré Rudel (c. 1100-c. 1147), it tells of Jaufré’s idealized love for a woman he has never seen – Clémence, countess of a Crusader colony in Lebanon – with messages brought back and forth by an unnamed, androgynous, seafaring Pilgrim.
Saariaho’s music may sparkle, but it’s also dissonant – influenced as much by the steely atonality of Webern as the hazy sensuality of Debussy. Saariaho has also incorporated material redolent of the medieval era, including actual melodic elements from Jaufré’s own songs. When these primitively tonal melodies emerge out of the dark tides of Saariaho’s music, the effect is remarkable. It happens first in a passage sung by the pilgrim, sung here with resonant gravitas by Tamara Mumford, and it’s like a sunset breaking through the clouds.
Making her Met debut, conductor Susanna Mälkki navigates the complexities of the score with great assuredness and expressiveness. Susanna Phillips, as Clémence, gets a plethora of bravura passages and high notes which she handles with great power and musical intelligence. As Jaufré, Eric Owens is the production’s beating heart, bringing great passion to even the most devilishly difficult sections. Recommended.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.