Wednesday, 8 July 2009

L'Amour de Loin, Kaija Saariaho, ENO

I feel ill-suited to discuss music when there are bloggers out there like my colleague Mark Berry, over at the learned and insanely frequently updated Boulezian, and the composer-arranger Nico Muhly, at his own eponymous and marvellously hip blog.

But what the hell. I've never been backward about coming forward.

I nipped down to the ENO at the London Coliseum yesterday for the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's opera L'Amour de Loin, 'Love from Afar'. Now, possibly there is no more self-indulgent pleasure than going to an artistic event on one's own. (Well, there is: spending the kids' inheritance on amassing a collection of Edwardian pornography; taking a half-bottle of spirits and a box of chocs into the back-row of the cinema; going on a seesaw after the age of thirty---that kind of thing.) But personally, once in a while, I rather like the anonymity of just appearing in work clothes at something, watching, and then disappearing again, just as I enjoy walking round foreign cities on my tod.

That said, being a simple soul with no musical training, I must confess that I still find opera a difficult medium: the penetrating, aggressive loudness of the voices, the complex and sophisticated hybridity of the artform, and the relative rarity of extended passages of simple beauty all tend to mean that I find it heavy going. As an adolescent, I recall that I used to find the sound of operatic singing horrendously ugly, at once shrill and overblown; my opera-obsessed parents, on the other hand, could never understand how I could tolerate the repetition and microtonal melismas of eastern music, or what I think they saw as the iciness of medieval and medieval-inspired music, both of which I love passionately. Well, just as in poetry I find Pauline Stainer's work, with its elusive, neo-medieval flashes, far more beautiful than, say, Pound's hermetic monumentalism, in music my natural tastes are similar: I find the piercing, austere textures of David Lang's recent Little Matchgirl Passion, for example, far more straightforwardly 'beautiful' than the mystifying surfaces of a lot of grand opera, which I just haven't got the critical tools to understand.

Fortunately, we can all expand our natural tastes, and I've grown out of expecting easily-assimilable aural loveliness out of a night out. (Thank God--otherwise I'd be listening to the cardamom-scented sugariness of Lakmé for the rest of my life.) But I still feel on the back foot with music, so you--learned readers--will have to bear with my ignorance.

L'Amour de Loin tells what would be a great love-story if the lovers actually met for more than five minutes. There are only three characters: two 'lovers', the (historical) medieval French prince and troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, and a French Countess in exile in Tripoli---plus an ambiguously-motivated Pilgrim who brings about their 'love from afar', crisscrossing the sea to tell the one about the other. The theme is what was known to medieval Irish litterateurs, incidentally, as sercc écmaise, 'love of one absent', the lineaments of which Welsh aficionados will recognise in the story of Culhwch, in which the young hero falls in love with the beautiful Olwen merely by hearing her name. Our troubadour and courtly lover Jaufré Rudel imagines an ideal lover far across the sea, dedicating songs and poems to her; he learns from the mysterious Pilgrim that such a woman, the Countess, indeed exists, 'fair without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, devout without the arrogance of piety.' Meanwhile, the Pilgrim returns to the Countess, and tells her of the far-off poet in her homeland who sings of her beauty with heartbroken passion, though he has never seen her. In the second half of the opera, Jaufré travels across the Mediterranean to meet his idealised love, who experiences passionate anxiety about her own worthiness of such a rarefied devotion: 'I, troubadour, am only beautiful when reflected in your words', sings the Countess Clémence, 'The songs you sing caress me more than a kiss.' As the Guardian's critic noted, 'When Jaufré arrives, he is close to death, and the couple have just the time to declare their love for each other before he expires, leaving Clémence to mourn what she has lost, or possibly never had.' Questions of idealised love, obsession, of worthiness and unworthiness flicker around Amin Maalouf's libretto, dismayingly prosaic in English translation.

Saariaho's densely-woven music with its iridescent orchestral shimmers and pastelly chiaroscuro was rather wonderful. 'Ting!' went the ?glockenspiel, fluddleluddleluddle went the harp, as the strings and off-stage chorus evoked shifting patterns of light. It all sounded rather like the northern lights look: waves of delicate, evanescent colours, all slowly blurring and fading, never holding one form. Daniele Finzi Pasca's staging tried to harness the same kind of effect with great undulations of coloured silk: as the opera got started, a huge billow of blue-grey semi-transparent fabric was fluttered down over the stalls and pulled to the back of the stage---which would have given a marvellous impression of subaqueous light and ungraspable, spectral delicacy if it hadn't awkwardly snagged on a light-fitting and audibly ripped.

Pasca, whose background is in 'new wave' circus dance, faced down the problem of having only three characters by tripling everyone, so that Jaufré, Clémence and the Pilgrim each have two separate 'souls', who drift around the place in the form of dancers and acrobats. (I'm not sure this was exploited to the full, as it was often merely confusing: periodically, Clémence's second soul ran on and off dressed as a bride, like Catherine Tate in search of a Doctor Who Christmas special.) There was a distinct whiff of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in all this silky floating and fluttering. Have a look:

You can see something of the elaborateness of the sets and of the languid orientalism that suffused---a very Saariaho word, that---the production; all this gold, soft red and black laquer made me feel that I'd got trapped in the packaging of a gigantic, theatre-sized bottle of Yves Saint Laurent's Opium. The costumes were rather lovely: Jaufré's yellow house-coat was suitably princely, and I can only describe Clémence's robes as 'Eleanor of Aquitaine-on-a-state-visit-to-Taiwan' (vous imaginez!), with a slight whiff of Sibylla in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven:

But the poor Pilgrim was less successful in this department: clad in silver and faded forest-green velvet, and with long pig-tails, s/he looked like a cut-price Galadriel. Further, the double-souls gimmick was unwisely extended by the use of puppetry: at the beginning of each act, an ingratiating young couple, clad at one point in sou'westers, wandered onto the stage wheeling what appeared to be a leather Victorian bathing contraption. This turned out to be a kind of shadow-puppet booth, inside which they mimed portentously. Since, alas, this improbable device was the size of your average domestic telly, it was impossible to see what was going on from any distance, still less from the Upper Circle where I was sat. This inexplicable bit of dramaturgy left me very puzzled: at the beginning of Act IV, for instance, why show a storm at sea using two actors, a bathchair on wheels, and a backlit sheet of greaseproof, when the very next scene represents the same storm on stage with wonderful theatrical effectiveness?! Meh.

There were several haunting moments: most effective was the scene in Act II in which the Pilgrim describes Jaufré's devotion to the horrified, then deeply moved Countess: s/he sings a few fragments of one of the Prince's songs of enraptured devotion. Saariaho has clearly gone to work on the techniques of troubadour music, and these brief, hauntingly lovely minutes were, for me, the highlight of the opera, which really doesn't say very much, other than that I, a medievalist, am unsurprisingly more moved by medieval music than by wafty sub-Debussy. Though more gestured towards than embodied, these fragments of Jaufré's song were reminiscent of the following:

So it went on: as noted above, in the final two acts, Jaufré and the Countess finally meet, but Jaufré is dying, apparently ennervated by nerves and sea-sickness. This was poorly staged: a few seconds after the dying troubadour is wheeled on stage, Clémence, standing two feet away, asks where he is. It was a totally unnecessary panto-moment: for all Pasca's fondness for limber callisthenics, his direction of the actual singers was horribly static. Weirdly, he seems to think in tableaux rather than the four dimensions necessary for a good director.

By this time, I was growing restive in my perch: Jaufré and Clémence sing a bit, confessing their undying love, until Jaufré, well, dies---in triplicate, natch---and is removed on his bier via a kind of aerial three-point-turn. She has it out with God for taking her lover, and in a fit of pique becomes a druid. (Well, a nun, apparently, but I'm sure I've seen the massed, white-robed, hooded heavies of the final scene at Stonehenge before.) The three Jaufrés reappear from above, this time in a vaguely trinitarian guise, and bob up and down softly. Clémence's last words on stage--a prayer---are ambiguous: is God now her 'love from afar', or has the brief experience of transcendent human love become a kind of Platonic mystic initiation for her? The possibility is left open, which renders everything that has gone before subject to a kind of uncomfortable retrospective allegorisation. The idea is an arresting one, of course: interestingly, John Tavener did something similar with Laila, his 2005 score for the ballet AMU, in which the mystic-allegory side of the story is explicit. An enraptured poet Majnun, in love with a girl called Laila, seeks for her over deserts and oceans, internalising her more and more as a spiritual ideal, until, in the end, he finds her. 'Who are you?' he says to the puzzled girl, 'I don't recognise you.' 'I am your Laila', says the girl. 'No, no, my Laila is inside me', says Majnun, 'I don't know who you are.' I imagine the name of the girl is a Sufi pun: Laila = La ilaha (illa Allah), thus representing the unmanifest, unknowable and ineffable essence of God.

L'Amour de Loin was a curious night, all told; several very good ingredients somewhow all added up to something which felt rather inconsequential. The singing was lovely throughout: the three principles were more than fine, especially Joan Rodgers as Clémence. But the problem is that there just isn't enough in the opera: the plot is so slender it barely keeps one's attention. If only someone had slipped the richly-talented Saariaho a copy of Gore Vidal's novella The Search for a King, which has similar troubadour elements and is also a tale of devotion and anguished love from afar: it tells how Richard the Lionheart, kidnapped and held to ransom after the Third Crusade, was found by his faithful troubadour Blondel de Neel. A Saariaho opera on a richer theme would truly have been worth seeing.

* * *

Here's a piece on a related theme by Saariaho: Lonh (i.e. Loin in Occitan, I expect), which shows the medieval influences on her work clearly. One can quite see why, as a composer, she is fond of Dawn Upshaw's voice: Upshaw played Clémence in the premiere of L'Amour de Loin. Much of Lonh is reminiscent of Upshaw's recent recording of Osvaldo Golijov's exquisitely beautiful song-cycle Ayre.


Doundou Tchil said...

Your comments as a medievalist on the plot (or lack thereof)would be interesting. Was the real like Jaufre Rudel quite so flighty ? Or did troubadors have more intellectual depth ? Does the opera shed light on medieval thought ? Of Saariaho's three operas this one works best with her music. Applied to her opera about rape, murder and identity in Serbia it's a bit odd.

Sovay said...

and in a fit of pique becomes a druid. (Well, a nun, apparently, but I'm sure I've seen the massed, white-robed, hooded heavies of the final scene at Stonehenge before.)

You need to see Éric Rohmer's Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (2007). It is a period film of a seventeenth-century romance whose story takes place in fifth-century Gaul. The scene in which the Druid expounds upon the Trinity is not to be missed. With nymphs in a pleached alley and the requisite amount of gender-bending.

Bo said...

That sounds absolutely wonderful!

Lucretius said...

Bo - a nice account of the opera, thank you. I've linked to it from my 'Afterlife of Jaufré Rudel' blog, hope you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

Bo, thank you so much for an afternoon of pure delight, reading your beautiful writing, listening to the Hungarian troubador music (beautiful voice and oud), discovering Arany Zoltan's music site through you, seeing parts of L'Amour de Loin, all while reading and experiencing your list of fragrances. Some of them I want to wear myself even though I am a woman!

So, if you read this, here's a gift for you, which your scents evoked in me :)

Marrakesh Night Market

Bo said...

Thanks so much, Anonymous, I enjoyed that! And very glad you liked the piece.

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