In the mid-1990s Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho became attracted to the poetry of Jaufre Rudel, the 12th-century troubadour and lord of Blaye who wrote striking poems of love to a woman far away whom he couldn't and, possibly, never even did meet. In "Lonh" for soprano and electronics (1996), she set one of his songs for Dawn Upshaw to sing, and then she wrote her first opera L'AMOUR DE LOIN ("Love from Afar") on the theme. This 2004 performance is by the Finnish National Opera. It's conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, a long-time proponent of Saariaho's music, having known her since their days at school. This staging is directed by Peter Sellars, whose quirky stage design actually agrees with the composer's intentions this time (imagine that).
According to Rudel's unreliable biography, his love was for the Countess of Tripoli, whom he never saw but to whom he nonetheless pledged his eternal love. Amin Maalouf's libretto treats precisely this part of his life. In the first act, Rudel (a baritone, here Gerald Finley) in his castle reflects how he's stuck in a rut, no longer able to show daring skill with women and make other men jealous. A pilgrim comes and tells him of a woman he saw on the other side of the sea, who is everything Rudel says he desires. The troubadour decides to desire only her, and yet he knows he cannot even see her. The pilgrim is an androgynous persona, treated as male but sung by a woman (a mezzo-soprano, here Monica Groop). This pilgrim moves back and forth across the sea, speaking individually to the Countess of Tripoli (a soprano, here Dawn Upshaw), and then Rudel again. Eventually, Rudel decides to travel with the pilgrim to Tripoli, meeting his destiny in a tragic ending. Maalouf is a fantastic librettist, I can think of few scenes in opera as moving as the duet between Rudel and the Countess in Act IV. And although there are only three characters (and an unseen chorus representing the young men of Blaye and the young women of Tripoli), there is never that there's not enough going on; dramatic tension stays high throughout.
Saariaho's music is quite systematic. The part of Rudel is subtle, full of small steps. The soprano is characterized by wide leaps on a diatonic scale. Strikingly, the song of the pilgrim changes based on who she is addressing, reflecting her role as intermediary. The orchestral music is concerned mainly with timbre, with occasional flashes of vibrant colour as in Messiaen or Debussy. The unseen chorus, consisting as it does of kinsmen and kinswomen who try to bring Rudel and the Countess to their senses, are accompanied by music of disruption: percussion blasts, pizzicato. The music is generally impressive, but some portions prevent me from giving this opera a five-star rating. After the middle of the 1990s, Saariaho's writing changed noticeably, and she began to eschew electronics and write overt melodies, a turn for the worst compared to her masterpieces of the early '90s, such as "Amers", "Du cristal", and "Six Japanese Gardens". Most of the opera holds its own against this early great pieces, and electronics happily abound (many sounds realized at IRCAM). Yet certain moments are all too typical of what she is writing now. Take, for instance, the beginning of act IV, as the pilgrim is sitting in his ship. The music of the scene (written also as an individual piece, the first movement of her "Oltra Mar" for choir and orchestra), is trite and bombastic and like something of out a 1970s sci-fi soundtrack. Or the scene near the end where the people of Tripoli admonish the countess, music so banal and simplistic one would hardly suspect it the work of Saariaho.
I'm never one to review well the sound and video possibilities of DVDs, as I watch them on a laptop screen and listen with headphones, but this is no poor print and the sound seems impeccable. The DVD contains a "bonus" of three interviews, with Saariaho, Salonen, and Sellars. One regrets that there's no interview with Maalouf, who bears such a great part of the responsibility for this work.
In spite of some minor complaints, any fan of contemporary music, or even general opera (there's little of the "weird modernism" or "dissonance" that could frighten traditional listeners) should see this fascinating work. Among the operas of the last 30 years, L'AMOUR DE LOIN will certainly rank among the most universally accessible (it's certainly no Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre").