Sunday, December 11, 2016

L'amour de loin - et de près

If you like Pelleas et Melisande and Le roi Arthus, you will like L'Amour de loin, a turn-of-the century opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, which finally premiered at the Metropolitan Opera this season.  First seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 and two years later in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the story of a medieval troubadour in love with a woman he has never seen can easily be transported in today's era of virtual reality.

Robert Lepage's production, featuring ribbons with LED lights stretched across the stage to create a stylized version of the sea surface, was perfectly suited to contemporary music expression and overall feel of the work. Alas, they dressed Eric Owens in some sort of "princely" garb and stuck a lute in his hands to make him look more like a Latin American dictator than either a medieval prince or a modern day lover.

The production has been described as mesmerizing and dazzling, but I must admit that it was a little déjà vu for me. I also suspect that I would have enjoyed the radio broadcast more than I did the video simulcast. Except for Owens that is. If there ever was a person miscast for an operatic role both in looks and in sound, it was Owens in the role of Jaufré Rudel, a 12-th century troubadour from France.

We all remember the big hoopla about Deborah Voigt losing her signature role in a London production of Ariadne auf Naxos because of her size. The producers said they had envisioned an Ariadne in a mini skirt and our Debbie did not fit the image. The U.S. media screamed foul, but Voigt seemed to understand. Movie and theater directors audition hundreds of actors before choosing the one they deem best suited for the role. Why should opera be different? If we only needed the right voice, we could just have concert performances and do away with acting and sets.

Countess Clémence of Tripoli, the pilgrim and Prince Jaufré Rudel are the only characters in L'amour de loin, but there is also an excellent chorus à la grecque
With Owens, it's not just the size that's wrong- it's the whole persona. He was a powerful Alberich (Der Ring des Nibleungen) convincing, though not perfect Stephen Kumalo (Lost in the Stars) and an OK Orestes (Elektra). But a medieval prince he ain't, either to the eye or to the ear. On Saturday, Owens sounded more wobbly than I had ever heard him and his French was simply atrocious. There, I said it. Hence, I think he would have ruined the radio broadcast for me as well as the video simulcast. With the abundance of French baritones in today's operatic world, and Canadian Phillip Addis who sang the role recently, one wonders who decided on Owens for this production. 

Susanna Phillips, on the other hand, was well chosen and convincing as the countess d'Outremer.  Her  scaly dress made her look like a siren most of the time. Maybe it was intentional.

Saariaho’s opera has been described as “transfixing," "lushly beautiful," "groundbreaking," "haunting" and "elegiac," among other things. The libretto by Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf is simple: Prince Jaufré, a troubadour (based on a 12-th century character) in Aquitaine is tired of earthly pleasures and seeks something more transcendental. He finds it in his own imagination of a beautiful noble woman, Countess Clémence of Tripoli, described to him by a pilgrim. Clémence spent her infancy in Toulouse, and yearns to return there. From their respective shores, Jaufré and Clémence yearn for idealized images of something that may be different in reality.

Half-way across the sea on the way to meet his beloved, Jaufré gets cold feet and tells the pilgrim, "The sun shines beautifully from afar, but it burns you if you get close." The premise is reminiscent of a popular Serbian poem Strepnja by Desanka Maksimović in which she says that "joy is beautiful only while you wait for it" and that "everything shines like a star only from a distance."  She implores her lover not to come closer so she would not be disappointed. In this respect, Maalouf's story is almost identical to the Serbian poem. 

But while Maksimović wisely stops there, L'Amour de loin becomes cloyingly sentimental in its search for a conclusion and eventually veers off into religion. Jaufré becomes deathly ill during the sea voyage and dies upon meeting his dream woman. Dies happy - we are made to believe. She is brokenhearted, but says she will find consolation in loving from afar because after all, we love God from afar. Do we need that message? For me the story would have been more convincing and the opera more meaningful if the lovers had never met and continued to yearn for each other sight unseen. Or if they did meet only to realize they were idolizing a non-existing person. 

L'Amour the loin with its 21st century music and the Met's hi-tech production would be better matched with a contemporary story in which two people fall for each other (as many do these days) through the Internet. In some cases they later meet in person and really get to love each other. In others, one side has criminal intentions and the story ends tragically. But most people who "fall in love" online are simply disappointed when they meet the other party in person, and they politely tell each other good-bye. Eric Owens would fit perfectly in one such story.

Very often, real life stories are much more inspiring than the fictional ones.

Take for example American astronaut John Glenn, who died on Thursday, and his wife Annie. They knew each other since they were children. When they married (and naturally before that) she stuttered so badly that she would not go shopping except in places where she could pick up what she needed from the shelves.  Glenn was first a war hero, then after his 1962 flight into orbit became a world celebrity, and later a senator. He even ran for president in 1984. So for most of their married life he was a man of fame and power and she was low-profile. But he was a devoted husband and, as far as we know, the glory did not tempt him to stray from his wife.  

Annie underwent a successful treatment for her affliction when she was over 50 years of age. Until she was ready to step into the limelight, Glenn was fiercely protective of her.  The Washington Post on Friday quoted him as telling Annie after his return from the space, “Look, if you don’t want the vice president or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that’s it as far as I’m concerned.” 

“They are not coming in and I will back you up all the way and you tell them that! I don’t want (Lyndon) Johnson or any of the rest of them to put so much as one toe inside our house,” he said in a phone call upon landing.

They were married for 73 years. What a great love story! Forget L'Amour de loin.

A clip from the Met's production:

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