Sunday, 5 July 2009

L’Amour de loin – English National Opera at London Coliseum

L’Amour de loin (Love From Afar) by Kaija Saariaho
Libretto by Amin Maalouf
Director: Daniele Finzi Pasca
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Reviewer: Mark Valencia

ENO is ending its strongest season in years with the UK première of this Finnish oddity from 2000. Music Director Edward Gardner is behind the project to bring it to London, and with his outstanding track record he’s more than earned the right to follow his nose. Whether audiences will tag along too is another matter, but at least they’re getting a bargain chance to make up their own minds because every seat at the Coliseum is being sold at a generous £20.

The oddest thing of all about L’Amour de loin is Saariaho’s choice of material. Most composers would kill for a Salzburg Festival commission, and if they were to land one their substance of choice would probably be theatrical red meat. Not Saariaho, though. She opts for a semi-static examination of courtly love, played out by a cast of just three singers in a shimmering, constant aural landscape.

The plot takes moments to explain yet two and a half hours to unfold onstage. Jaufré Rudel, the prince of Blaye in French Aquitaine, falls in love with an idealised notion of woman. He admits this phantom infatuation to a travelling Pilgrim who tells him, wonder of wonders, that during his travels he has met this very woman, in Tripoli. She is the Countess Clémence. The Pilgrim vouchsafes Jaufré’s secret to the Countess herself, then returns to Blaye (more ferryman than pilgrim, this Pilgrim) and escorts the languishing lad to meet his love. Alas for Jaufré, during the voyage to Tripoli he falls ill and, on arrival, he barely has time to meet his beloved before dying in her arms.

Saariaho’s anti-dramatic score is at once fascinating and frustrating. She makes no attempt to characterise any of the three protagonists through music, so the result is more tone poem than opera. It could have been hypnotic in the manner of, say, Pelléas et Mélisande, but the bleached and purified orchestral colours merely slow-release Amin Maalouf’s tale dose by homeopathic dose. Such refined, understated music offers challenging raw materials for any director, while for a theatrical visionary (like Peter Sellars, whose Finnish production is available on DG DVD) its very restraint may be the trigger that excites the creative impulse.

For this new staging, ENO has recruited Cirque de Soleil’s Daniele Finzi Pasca to direct. If that prompts expectations of busy fly galleries and extensive use of billowing silk, you’re right; but alas even Pasca fails to crack this theatrical nut. He triples the cast size by adding two acrobats to every singer and giving them lots of physical business to do, but to little purpose. His production is like a slo-mo Cirque show: beautiful to look at, expensively kitted out, fabulously lit, empty. Surprisingly, he fails to inject any trace of wit or humour into the evening, as though Saariaho’s filigree score forbade it. Perhaps it does. Such attempts at levity as there are (a tedious pair of shadow-puppeteers pop in from time to time) fall flat, and the only laughs to be had are unintentional. Chortle at the Pilgrim’s costume and its comedy sleeves! Chuckle as the bungee-bouncing Countess plays peek-a-boo upstage!
The production’s sound world is immaculate. Gardner’s three singers have mastered every nuance of what must have been a fiendish piece to learn, yet they are at one with each other and with the on-form ENO Orchestra. Roderick Williams is astonishingly good as Jaufré Rudel – his timbre is magnificent these days – and he even comes close to achieving characterisation, which is some feat in this opera. Joan Rodgers is a commanding Clémence, and if her voice is a little strident at times it gives a welcome kick to the pervading serenity. As the Pilgrim the American mezzo Faith Sherman is cruelly decked out like Gandalf’s gonk, but she sings with power and vocal warmth.

It’s worth a £20 punt to catch one of the three remaining performances, and it’ll do wonders for your blood pressure if you do. For all its faults L’Amour de loin offers beauty and tranquillity, and it will wash over you like a cloud of Pasca’s silk. You’ll find yourself becalmed, bemused and possibly beguiled by it.

Photos: Johan Persson
L'Amour de loin runs at the London Coliseum, 3rd to 11th July 2009 (4 performances)
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