on December 13, 2006
It often seems to me that the claims of many contemporary composers to musical influence from particular masterpieces are spurious. You know the type of thing, some five-note figure in the middle of a porridge of sounds is supposed to relate to the second subject of the first movement of Mozart's K595, or a cacophony of harmonies is inspired by the Tallis motets. But in L'Amour de loin I have no difficulty picking up the claimed influences of Debussy and Messiaen despite refractions through contemporary musical thought and electronic accoutrements. In a nutshell, it is a beautiful work to listen to. Approachable without being shallow, challenging but not daunting, it repays repeated hearings.
In mainstream opera, it is difficult to find the ideal performance. Wotan may be superb but Hunding boring; Sesto and Tito vocally brilliant but the chorus dull; Tosca's acting heartbreaking but Scarpia's voice past its best. In L'Amour de Loin there are just three principals. Add orchestra, off-stage chorus, conductor and director to three performers, and you have a much better chance of getting it right. In this performance I would be hard put to pick the best of an outstanding ensemble. The three main protagonists are so good it is hard to envisage alternatives. All look right, act brilliantly and sing impeccably. Their roles are very different, Dawn Upshaw transforming from young countess to spiritual acolyte via a fifteen minute bout of near-hysterical anger that recalls Didon in Les Troyens, post-jilting. As Jaufre Rudel, Gerald Finley is suitably troubadour-like, ardent, impetuous, fragile, wearing his heart on his sleeve. Monica Groop is an excellent pilgrim, a go-between supposedly cipher-like if you believe the liner notes, but to me expressing fiercely-tamped emotions that generate an unstated sub-plot.
That is one of the fascinations of this work. Composer, librettist, conductor, director have all expressed their views on what this work is "about", but like all great art it has a life beyond the imaginations of those who gave birth to it, and there is plenty of room for dissenting opinion. To me, it speaks of unattainability, the unsatisfiable human hunger for what we cannot quite reach. Surely future productions will provide their own, and very different, interpretations. The work is strong enough to wear a huge range of costumes.
Salonen and the Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra paint a brilliant score that will give your audio equipment and thorough workout. They reproduce the many pedal notes and static chords with required concentration, also finding a dynamic range that will have your neighbours banging on the wall.
Sellars' direction is irreproachable, producing a perfect mix of frustration, sensuality and spirituality. The set is conceptually simple but works beautifully with lighting effects that transform it in response to the music. Pilgrim's boat is an imaginative conception, even providing a kind of womb for Jaufre during his voyage, the photography (outstanding throughout) recalling the embryo shot in Kubrick's 2001.
The add-ons, interviews with Sellars, Saariaho and Salonen, are vacuous. Strange, the way what comes out of the minds of artistes is seldom matched by what comes out of their mouths.
L'Amour de loin is unmistakably a modern opera, but mainly so in its realization of modern techniques and possibilities, both visually and aurally. Its language is contemporary but not to the point of obscurantism. My wife, who struggles with much late 20th Century music, says this is one of her favourite operas. I believe it works so well not by speaking down to the audience, as some minimalists do, but by appealing to its heart and senses as well as its brain. In this current production it succeeds triumphantly.