Cher Public

Chanson d’amour

loin-1Much like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which launched the Met’s 2016-2017 season, Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin is an opera about love and death. 

In the narrative, the wealthy medieval troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, has grown weary of his aristocratic life. Consequently, he devotes himself to  poetry. His work, in the chivalric mode of the era, praises the reputed qualities of a woman he has never met, a woman he has never seen. Her name is Clémence, and she lives in Tripoli. However, he lives in Aquitane. Which is to say, they have a rather intense long-distance relationship.

This distance constructs the opera’s narrative arc, swinging back and forth from Jaufré’s western sphere to Clémence’s eastern location. When Jaufré finally makes his pilgrimage to Tripoli, to see his muse, his slow migration toward desire becomes a journey into death: Eros and Thanatos merge into one.

The opera, having premiered at the Salzburg Frestival in 2000 to great success, receives its Met debut in a production by Robert Lepage, starring Eric Owens, Tamara Mumford and Susanna Phillips.

Lepage’s direction is enigmatic, engaging, hypnotic, and at times comical. It thrusts one’s nose into the absurdities of love, death, and theology. With a set and costume design by Michael Curry, the most dominant impression is that of the Mediterranean Sea, rolling and swelling, singing, refracting sunlight and starlight, and evoking the untraveled distances between the lover and his object of desire.

Countless LED lights are deployed to create this sea. The effect is a mesmerizing paradox between stasis and movement. The sea rolls and churns, and yet it remains constant in this movement. It’s an image that calls to mind Valery’s “Le cimètier marin” or perhaps Zeno’s paradox—always approaching, and yet never quite arriving. Erotic to the core.

loin-2Punctuating these swells of anticipation, the chorus pops up out of the water like synchronized swimmers—sirens calling to the characters to comment, to criticize, to clap. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, in which reason and cynicism burst through the gauzy veils of poetry and art.

These heady themes require intense and serious performers. As the troubadour, Jaufré, Owens brings a majestic, earthbound presence to the stage. He pours out his love for Clémence, projecting a rich, unwavering sound, anchored and weighty, that is until his fateful pilgrimage to Tripoli.

While Jaufré is rooted to the ground, Clémence’s substance and tessitura are more ethereal and airy—otherworldly, bathed in the transforming waters of fantasy. The singer taking on this role should possess a regal, almost alien quality. And yet, Phillips is all too normal; her voice and looks feel homespun and familiar. She soothes us, when Clémence should surely shock, awe and provoke us. Phillips’ singing is adept enough—she gets through the difficult evening successfully. If only her demeanor and sound were not so vanilla.

As the pilgrim, the intermediary between the two, Tamara Mumford is very satisfying. Her rich, evocative mezzo pulses through Saariaho’s score with measured, expert control. The character possesses a noble, earthy wisdom, traversing the distance between the lover and beloved. She serves as a kind of cupid figure—an intermediary, an advocate, and the source of Eros’ inspiration.

Saariaho’s score, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, is breathtaking. All evocation and sheen, it acts more as an ontology than mere harmony and melody. There is something so wonderfully old and new about this music. It projects the audience out of space and time into unknown contexts; and yet, she manages to simultaneously harken back to the sundrenched coasts of medieval Aquitaine and Tripoli.

At the very end of the opera, Clémence tells us that she is devoting herself to God—a divine object of affection, removed from her, omnipresent, but also terribly intangible. The posture is one of looking into absence, staring into the void. Behind her, the sea and the sky remain forever separated by a swelling, but in escapable, limit: the trenchant horizon.

loin-3But then again, this devotion is more ambivalent than we would like it to be: is she speaking to a divine god, or to her lover, Jaufré, L’Amour de Loin—who is now, by the end of the opera, as equally removed as a spirit god? The contrast between the line of the horizon and the notion of theological transcendence is deeply disturbing. Clémence stands at the threshold of revelation. The audience stands beside her; we reckon together with this shift in object attachment (Jaufré? God? The paradox of nothing?)

And it is in this elegant ambivalence where we fully recognize the opera’s thesis: the move from erotic love to theological longing. In the end, Clémence has become the inverse of Jaufré, who once pined for her in a similar act of pagan idolatry, composing verse to her imagined image, desperately working to describe something with no concrete reference point. Much like the mirroring of sky and sea, Clémence mirrors Jaufré in her devotion to God.

In this manner, the opera evokes a queer longing, hinging not on the fruits of sexual or erotic consummation, but on the slow hunger of melancholy. I find this deeply compelling; Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf are working with the banal currencies of love and death in provocative ways, teasing out the more transformative aspects of these experiences.

As the opera ends, we wait with Clémence at the limit of sky and sea, staring into the horizon. In her book Eros, the Bittersweet, Anne Carson explains how the ancient world understood erotic love as the experience of limits and failed transcendence. She writes:

Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between “I love you” and “I love you too” the absent presence of desire comes alive.

With Jaufré gone, Clémence turns to absence and looks for God. I am not certain she finds Him there. But within this gap, the interval between reach and grasp, the presence of desire springs once again into life.

Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Our Own JJ‘s reaction to this opera in the Observer is now online.

  • Sanford Schimel

    Does toking poetry make the weed more intense?

  • Rowna Sutin

    I wasn’t sure about going to the HD, but after this beautifully written piece by Patrick, I am IN! In general I don’t care for “modern” music -- you know, the kind where I can’t hum a tune at the end . . . and I was probably the only person to publicly admit to liking the Lepage Ring . . . . so I didn’t want to see another production and be alone in my admiration for his stagecraft. On another note, Tamara Mumford is a luscious mezzo. Her Smeaton several seasons ago, was like beauty on a plate. All this attention to the woman composer, the woman conductor, its all terrific. But at the end of the day, I go to the opera to be swept away. Stay tuned. I’ll let you all know.

    • Armerjacquino

      I am trying and trying to work out what the scare quotes around the word modern mean. Music that claims to have been written recently but wasn’t?

      • Rowna Sutin

        There are works that are close to 100 years old, and I just don’t like them because they are dissonant and I can neither tell what key they are in, nor can I make any sense of the musical language; Berg’s 2 operas fall into that category. I have tried to like them . . listening many times . . . but I just can’t. Then there are tuney newer operas, such as The Ghosts of Versailles, Glass operas and those by Adams. So that is why I put quotes around modern -- it isn’t the date of the composition, but the style. If I could choose, I would like the operas using the 12 tone style. I have no idea why they grate on me, but they do.

        • Armerjacquino

          Thanks for the clarification!

        • Donna Annina

          Rowna, I watched the dvd and was completely entranced by the score, the performers and the production. I love her writing for chorus--they were used quite effectively. We’ll be in the house next Saturday.
          Jake Heggie just had a premiere this evening at HGO: It’s a Wonderful Life. I wonder who sings Jimmy Stewart. But Heggie’s opera of Moby Dick is pretty amazing. Check out the dvd.

          • Krunoslav

            ‘ I wonder who sings Jimmy Stewart.’

            William Burden sings Stewart’s part.

    • Rowna I don’t see you humming any tunes after L’Amour de Loin.

    • Luvtennis

      Beauty on a plate! I like that!

      It’s funny. Because I didn’t read any of the publicity for this production, it never occurred to me to focus on the fact that the composer is a woman. I was more engaged by the mere fact that a new opera by a non-American/British composer was being premiered at the met!

    • Luvtennis


      Ever heard Boughton’s “The Immortal Hour?” I know I probably shouldn’t like it, and I might feel differently now, but when I heard the Hyperion recording as a teen (who loved Tolkien), I was smitten. Maybe it was the beautiful voices of the soprano and tenor leads. Lol!

      • Rowna Sutin

        Hi Luvtennis: I have never heard of it, nor the composer.

  • Big Finn

    Thank you for the beautiful, in-depth and revelatory review! I have seen and heard this opera twice in its initial incarnation, and remember being hypnotized by the music. As directed by Peter Sellars, first in Paris and then in Helsinki –where Mr Sellars at the premiere did all he could milking the audience give him longer applause than Saariaho, and failing– Sellars filled the entire stage with 4 inches of water… I prefer the less real (and less shallow) idea of the led lights for creating oceans and spaces.

  • I will own up. L’Amour de Loin (at the Châtelet) was the most painfully boring experience I have ever had in a theatre. And they did it without a break so there was no escape. I hope at least (for their sakes) that many New-Yorkers will not understand the texts…

    • Was that “Le cimentier marin?” Manou, can you help?

    • Rowna Sutin

      Maybe I should rethink my $22.00.

      • This is a different production, though.

    • Big Finn

      I saw and heard Upshaw twice (in the role) and thought she didn’t simply have the chops for it, quite underpowered. But she was The Choice soprano amongst a certain set of intellectuals in the music business at the time, a favorite of Peter Sellars, and of course the composer. My gums certainly ached for what Upshaw was lacking, as “pretty” as she sounded.

      • Krunoslav

        Dawn Upshaw was completely miscast in this part, giving what a friend calls her wan “Vice Prez of the high school French club” performance, as she also did as Blanche de la Force. I was very admiring when Upshaw in AINADAMAR pulled something completely different out of herself, quite commanding. Susanna Phillips is far better suited to it vocally and dramatically; I just wish she could work with someone who could restore the ease in topmost notes.

        • Big Finn

          Well put.

  • QuantoPainyFakor

    LED’S ? Everybody’s got to have them these days (as in this highly creative production in Hamburg)

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    I love the music, but don’t know why in 2000 a composer would take on such an archaic, esoteric libretto. And it’s all so anti-dramatic.

  • Luvtennis

    Our dearly departed (from parterre) GCR just posted one of the most ignorant mysognistic statements I have ever read from a person who understands (sort of) how to write in complete sentences.

    I try to be a positive person (Kashie, please back me up) but all I can say is that some people make it hard to love our species….


    • Armerjacquino

      If someone who has left here does something hateful somewhere else, that’s probably better left somewhere else, no?

      • Luvtennis

        In my opinion, hate and ignorance pertaining to our beloved art form is fair game. Not engaging and calling out such behavior implicitly condones it. We can’t hide in our coastal bubbles anymore. And the failure of the educated to fight this behavior each and every time it rears its ugly head cannot be excused.

        Attitudes like his (and much worse) have put us in a sorry predicament in this country. Now if GCR were uneducated or had some excuse for not knowing better, I would try to engage politely and positively. But….

        • Armerjacquino

          Well, yes. I’m more than happy for people on Opera-L to engage with this. I just don’t see why it should be inflicted on us too.

          If your argument is that every horrible opinion on the internet should be discussed everywhere else, we’re all going to be very busy. And it’s maybe a little pompous to characterise ‘look what someone has said on another website!’ as some kind of noble quest for truth and education.

          • Luvtennis

            Wow. Whatever.

          • Timothy Stephenson

            Armer, I almost choked when I read the part of you calling someone ELSE ‘pompous’ when you’ve got to be the most pompous person on here. Since I’ve started reading this site, the ONE thing that I can be sure of is that if someone is in dire need of ‘correcting’- most especially in matters of either behavior, opinion, or even in how one expresses oneself (all of which, of course, are entirely subjective, and which then beggars the question of “who the hell died and made YOU the arbiter of everything???”)- it will come from you.
            Now, there is NO need to defend yourself, nor point out reasons why I am so OBVIOUSLY wrong in what I am saying. Not only do I not care, but it is my opinion, and I am entitled to it.
            Moving on…

            • La Cieca

              I don’t see this conversation going anywhere useful. Care to change the subject?

            • Krunoslav

              “Aimez-vous Brahms?”

            • Armerjacquino

              Lovely to meet you too, stranger.

    • Luvtennis, my reaction to the idiocy you describe:

      • Luvtennis

        Lol! Thank you!

  • DonCarloFanatic

    It’s sad that most Americans seeing the title of this opera will think it has something to do with meat.

  • Dmitri Hvorostovsky has posted this on his FB page. I’m worried :(

    Having sung four very successful performances of La Traviata in Vienna, Dmitri is back in London.
    Following an MRI scan, Dmitri has been advised by his doctors to remain in London for further treatment and rest. As a result, Dmitri must unfortunately withdraw from two performances of Don Carlo at the Bolshoi, which would have marked his operatic debut with the company.
    Dmitri deeply regrets the situation but remains optimistic about his recovery and grateful for the support from his family, friends, colleagues, and fans. He looks forward to returning to the stage for the 10th anniversary of Hvorostovsky and Friends with Marcelo Álvarez on December 14 at Moscow’s State Kremlin Palace and on December 18 at St. Petersburg’s Oktyabrskiy Great Concert Hall. Further concert engagements include December 22 in Krasnoyarsk and December 28 in Ekaterinburg.

  • Krunoslav

    A Prominent NYC critic can’t seem to grasp that this is NOT an inter-cultural love story. (Of course Peter Sellars tried to sell it as such in his Santa Fe spiels too). Those were crusader-run kingdoms and duchies-- like the “Duchy of Athens” in MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM, ruled by younger sons of Western rulers, in Tripoli’s case from France. Clémence was as French and Christian as Jauffre was. It’s never in doubt from the start.

    • Luvtennis

      Based on what I have read, such an interpretation would seem to completely undermine the basic thesis of the opera which has more to do with the emotion and spirituality (universal) than with culture, no?

      • Krunoslav


  • Luvtennis

    Just read JJ’s review. I will have to seek out a replay of the broadcast!

    The final sentence of the review makes me miss those wonderful interviews that were commonly featured in the old days. I am thinking especially of the Voigt interview. But now, with every singer promoting his or her own website….

    Anyway, evocative and well-written review. Kudos.

  • Kenneth Conway

    Wonderful review. Thank you!