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In Review > North America

L’Amour de Loin

QUEBEC
Festival Opera de Québec
8/1/15

A new production of Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf’s L’Amour de Loin, a joint project of the Opera de Québec and the Metropolitan Opera — where it is scheduled for a future season — had its premiere at the Festival Opera de Québec (seen Aug. 1).  Called “hypnotic” after its world premiere at the 2000 Salzburg Festival, L’Amour de Loin has had several stagings since, including the first U.S. production at Santa Fe in 2002. The opera’s lack of action demands extraordinary efforts from a director: it is simply not dramatic. Saariaho’s spare musical world can be intriguing; it ranges from seductive to alien, welcoming and frightening as the sea, but too little happens.

Director Robert Lepage has designed a remarkable machine for this new production. The main part is made of LED garlands tight across the stage in parallel rows. This creates the illusion of a surface receding to the horizon, a sea that can sit calm and low or tower apocalyptically like a tsunami wave. Its color palette is extraordinary, it roars like a Martian sunrise and glimmers in two-toned moonlight. Singers and objects move through it easily, though mostly Lepage keeps them tied to the second part of the stage machine, which recalls railway bridges rusting in canals all over North America. This metal contraption moves through the water circling, raising and lowering its two ends, usually with one or both of the main characters attached.

L’Amour de Loin is based on a twelfth-century troubadour song by a French prince, Jaufré Rudel, who fantasizes about a perfect woman (he tried all the local ones in his youth) only to learn from a traveling knight that she exists: she’s Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. The prince composes songs for her, the Traveller crosses the ocean to sing them and courtship by aquatic messenger ensues. At first, Clémence finds Jaufré’s attention presumptuous while the prince rails at the knight for singing his songs, but eventually Jaufre makes the crossing, which turns out to be fatal for some reason, and dies happily in Clémence’s embrace.

Clémence’s struggle as an object of affection and her anger at God—the original idealized “amour de loin”—for denying the lovers time together provide the only involving scenes in the opera. Fittingly, soprano Erin Wall was silken and powerful, regally sure at turning a searing leap into a sob. She sang the part in Daniele Finzi Pasca’s staging at Canadian Opera Company in 2012. Tamara Mumford sounded curiously naive as the Pilgrim knight, while Phillip Addis overdid the prince somewhat.

There are beautiful moments. Clémence’s Provençal quotations sit wonderfully alongside Saariaho’s striking tonal evocation of a troubadour song (it is a relief to listen and not understand.) Ernest Martinez Izquierdo led the Orchestre symphonique de Québec crisply through the opera’s soft metallic-colored textures, a haze of flutes and strings, with a repeated gong and brass flare for punctuation.

When the chorus does emerge to argue or sing aggressive lines like “look at the Countess!” “He’s here!” or “Shut up, woman!” they suggest a challenge to Jaufre’s self-involvement and point at a more sophisticated work. Musically, L’amour de Loin has something to it, but it is hard to understand how an opera that had its premiere relatively recently can offer so little to contemporary audiences. —Lev Bratishenko

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