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Friday, December 30, 2016

Opera Review: Journey's End In Lovers' Meeting

L'Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Susanna Philips (top) Tamara Mumford (left) and Eric Owens in L'Amour de Loin.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
Last night, the Metropolitan Opera played its last 2016 performance of Kaija Saariaho's opera L'Amour de Loin. This the first opera by a female composer mounted at the Met since 1903, and it served as a kind of manifesto for this company's mission in this uncertain new century.L'Amour de Loin (the title means "Love From Afar") is Ms. Saariaho's first opera, and it premiered at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris in 2000. This production featured Susanna Philips and Eric Owens, American stars who have risen to prominence in the last decade, as well as the stage direction of Robert Lepage, an artist whose successes at the Met are still overshadowed by the colossal failure of his staging of Wagner's Ring.

The opening tableau of the show may have made Wagnerians in the house a little wistful, as the clatter and clunk of the enormous set-piece known as "The Machine" was replaced by enormous, stage-spanning strands of superconducting diodes, creating the illusion of a vast, watery surface that changed and shifted without a sound The only set pieces were a little boat, poled across the stage and back by The Pilgrim (mezzo Tamara Mumford) and a movable, gimbaled staircase with a platform at each end. This represented the dock at the French palace of the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, (Mr. Owens) the palace steps of the Countess Clemencé's (Ms. Philips) retreat in Tripoli (the one in Lebanon, not the present-day capital of Libya) and at one point, the isolation of the lovers from each other as they stood on each end, facing in opposite directions.

This is a simple story, rendered in complex colors by the restless and imaginative orchestration of Ms. Saariaho. The score was led with cunning and verve by conductor Susanna Mälkki. Keyboards, tuned percussion and a vast array of winds (including unusual instruments like the Heckelphone) wove threads of sound much like a vintage French tapestry, with street chants and African rhythms lending color and spice to the Tripoli scenes. The effect was mesmerizing, drawing the ear into the world of these two very different people, connected between Europe and Africa by the golden thread of poetry and messages carried back and forth by the aforementioned Pilgrim.

In an opera where the libretto (by Amin Maalouf) threatens to drown the characters in symbolism, it is to these singers' credit that they presented Jaufré and Clémence as fully formed people. Indeed, this may be Mr. Owens' finest performance on the Met stage. He brought depth, doubt, shyness and humor to the role, who was an historican personage, a medieval troubadour whose songs are still sung today. In this story, Jaufré dreams of an ideal woman only to find she exists, and that he is separated from her by the breadth of the Mediterranean Sea. Mr. Owens' performance went from phlegmatic to fiery, climaxing in an Act IV dream sequence that featured his most passionate singing of the night.

There is a remote and icy quality to Clemencé, a French countess who is living out a lonely life in the far country of what is now Lebanon. The part suited Ms. Philips' aristocratic bearing and porcelain stage presence, and she sang with a power and expression far beyond the soubrette roles she has played in the past. Her character was reserved and analytical, singing long monologues from her lonely staircase with an emphasis on her isolation and hidden desperation. Warmth and depth finally emerged with one of these speeches at the end of Act III, in a moment of great humanity that recalled the heroines of Richard Strauss' operas.

Ms. Saariaho used chromaticism and thin-stretched chords in the strings and winds to evoke romantic sehnsucht and painful, aescetic isolation. It is the Pilgrim (mezzo Tamara Mumford) who links them together, carrying letters, impressions and descriptions across the great watery divide. This was a tremendous performance for Ms. Mumford. The only other presence on the stage was the Met chorus, popping up like Whack-a-Moles from beneath Mr. Lepage's bed of light. They were used to incredible effect in the stormy Act IV prelude, as the ropes of light became a surging, raging sea, with the singers appearing to drown even as they sang wordless chords.

Act V features the final, brief union of the two would-be lovers, cut short by Jaufré's illness and untimely (but very operatic) death. Here, the orchestra let loose with an outpouring of sorrow, before allowing Ms. Philips center stage. The soprano sang a slow, transcendent coda that thankfully, was no Liebestod, but something far more original in character. Heartbroken, she devoted herself to God in a passionate, spoken outburst, giving a whole new, transcendent meaning to the idea of love from afar.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.