A Sea Apart

December 01st, 2016

A breakthrough in 21st-century opera, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin has its Met premiere on December 1, 2016 in a dazzling new production by Robert Lepage that glows with the transcendental power of love.

Since its world premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, L’Amour de Loin has earned a place among the most acclaimed stage works of the 21st century. The opera won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Musical Composition in 2003 and has been performed in Paris, London, Santa Fe, Helsinki, Aspen, Darmstadt, and elsewhere. Yet it took years before Kaija Saariaho became convinced that opera could be a viable medium for what she wanted to express as a composer. She finally found the inspiration she was searching for in the short, quasi-legendary life story of an early medieval troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, and his improbable love for a far-away woman: “I felt that this was a story for me: simple, but full of meaning, and with a lot of space for music.”

L’Amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”) explores the archetypal themes of love and death that have been opera’s lifeblood from the very beginning. But Saariaho, who was born in Helsinki in 1952, brings a unique sensibility to this material through her enchanting musical language. “When I started to write this piece, I had to draw on all the musical resources I had used up till then, and all my experience,” she recalls. “I felt that I needed to stretch my music in different directions.”

Saariaho’s early career had led her to one of the centers of the European avantgarde, IRCAM in Paris, where the composer permanently relocated in 1982. At the time she was the only woman who worked at IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’s trailblazing research institute for electro-acoustic music and the science of sound, where Saariaho refined the extraordinary ear for timbre and texture that is her signature as a composer. Conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has known Saariaho since both of them were students at the Sibelius Academy, has memorably characterized her style as music that “vibrates in colors.”

From a theatrical perspective, it’s a style best suited to illuminating emotional states. That’s why Saariaho initially resisted opera, until she decided that its potential need not be limited to dramatic reworks. Her experience of Olivier Messiaen’s sole opera, Saint François d’Assise, “convinced me that I should write an opera,” she stated. Although Saariaho’s actual musical language has little in common with Messiaen, the French composer’s opera of spiritual enlightenment shares something with L’Amour de Loin in its contemplative mood (the New York Times describes the score as “transfixing”)—as do the intimate dramaturgy of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and what Wagner termed the “soul states” of Tristan und Isolde.

Like all of these operas, L’Amour de Loin transpires in a medieval setting and distills its narrative down to a minimalist plot that focuses on the inner lives of its protagonists. Saariaho discovered the kernel for the opera’s story in the figure of Jaufré Rudel, one of the earliest troubadours, who lived in the first half of the 12th century. Only a handful of his poems have survived, and little is known for certain about him beyond that he was a prince of Aquitaine in the southwest of France. But the tales that circulated posthumously about his exploits made Jaufré popular with later aficionados of the art of courtly love, and 19th-century poets like Robert Browning took a fresh interest in him.

After she settled on Jaufré as her subject, Saariaho was introduced to Amin Maalouf, an award-winning novelist and nonfiction writer who was born in Beirut and, like the composer, became a lifelong exile and settled in Paris. Maalouf, who writes in French, is known for such books as The Crusades through Arab Eyes and The Rock of Tanios, his historical novel set in 19th-century Lebanon.

Saariaho recalls her nervousness at collaborating for the first time with a librettist in what initially seemed like “an arranged marriage. But Amin listened to a lot of my music, and our working together became very natural.” Since L’Amour de Loin, Maalouf has written the texts for all of Saariaho’s other music theater works as well (with the exception of the most recent, Only the Sound Remains).

Like Wagner’s Tannhäuser, another historically obscure troubadour transformed into a vivid operatic protagonist, Jaufré at the beginning of L’Amour de Loin has become dissatisfied with a life of hedonism and sensual pleasures. He imagines an ideal love and then learns from an unnamed Pilgrim that the woman Jaufré believes he can only conjure through his art in fact exists, across the sea, in the distant Levant. She is Clémence, Countess of Tripoli.

The Pilgrim—an androgynous role written for mezzo-soprano, literally mediating between the heroine’s soprano range and Jaufré’s brooding baritone—acts as go-between, traveling between East and West. He initially disturbs and then intrigues Clémence with his account of a distant lover who sings her unparalleled praises. Though he has never been at sea, Jaufré decides to undertake the journey over the vast Mediterranean distance himself, accompanied by the Pilgrim. It is a voyage fraught with fear and doubt, while Clémence too worries about the role she should play when they finally meet. Jaufré’s dark night of angst has made him fatally ill by the time he arrives in Tripoli. Together, he and Clémence proclaim the reality of their love as he lies dying in her embrace. At the Met, the lovers will be portrayed by soprano Susanna Phillips and bass-baritone Eric Owens, with mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford singing the role of the Pilgrim.

“It’s an amazing, beautiful story about the purity of love,” says director Robert Lepage, whose new Met production premiered at the Festival d’Opéra de Québec in 2015. Saariaho had long admired Lepage’s visionary theatrical artistry, which she first experienced in the early 1990s in Paris. “I saw him in Elsinore, where he plays all the roles in Hamlet,” she says, and she felt a kinship “with my interests in art and music.” Lepage was unavailable for an earlier production of L’Amour de Loin the composer had wanted him to direct. She remarks: “He has a sensitive and inventive mind, so I’m very happy this is finally taking place.”

Working with set and costume designer Michael Curry, Lepage has devised a dazzling staging that pays homage to the medieval setting while eliciting both the contemporary sensibility of Saariaho’s music and the timelessness of the story. Long strips of computer-programmed LED lights (totaling 28,000 individual lights) glimmer and undulate to evoke the effect of the ever-present sea as it changes according to times of the day; as in Pélléas and Tristan, the sea itself becomes a kind of character in L’Amour de Loin, representing both the gulf and the bridge between the opera’s two worlds.

“One of the great challenges of this piece is that you have to have water onstage—how do you do that?” Lepage says. “For me, the shimmering of the sea provided the clue of how to stage this. It’s a very luminous production—though the shimmering effects are not just there for the look, they’re actually accompanying the music. The subtext of the music is about the different humors of the sea, and how that affects the storyline and the psychological background. You’re swallowed by these waves of music, and it reaches you in a very subliminal way. It’s a very magical, bewitching, hypnotic aesthetic.”

This “huge undertaking,” as Lepage describes it, marks the Met debut not just of the composer but that of Susanna Mälkki, Saariaho’s countrywoman, who begins her tenure as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic this fall and who is the first woman to be named principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Meanwhile, L’Amour de Loin is notable for being the first time the Met is staging an opera composed by a woman since the one-act Der Wald by Ethel Smyth in 1903.

But Saariaho says she tends not to dwell much on what it means to be a pioneering woman composer. “Of course, I now have a long career behind me, so maybe I don’t think about it anymore. We are in 2016, and that we need to discuss this thing about being a woman composer—it’s just unbelievable!” —Thomas May

More Saariaho: L’Amour de Loin events throughout New York City