My friend Mimmi and I saw *L'Amour de Loin* at the Met on 12/10. It's a newish opera by Kaija Saariaho, premiered in Salzburg in 2000 and having its Met premiere now. It's been getting a lot of press because it's only the second time that the Met has done an opera by a female composer (the first was *Der Wald* by Ethel Smyth in 1903). My first thought was that I don't know of any female composers who have done large-scale operas, but that's probably because no one was commissioning them! You don't just sit down and write a large-scale opera, you get someone to pay you to write it for them. I would love for the Met to commission her to write a new opera.
The story takes place in the 12th century. It's about a prince and poet (baritone) who is told by a pilgrim (mezzo) about a beautiful and virtuous countess (soprano). The poet falls in love with her, sight unseen, and begins writing love poems in her honor. The pilgrim tells the countess about this, and she falls in love with the poet. That's the first act. I won't tell you the rest because I don't believe in spoilers.
I resisted the opera for the first half hour. The music was sumptuous and fascinating, the production was gorgeous and imaginative, the singers were supreme. The problem was that it didn't feel like an opera, it felt like an oratorio. There was no drama, no action, no excitement. But then I decided to give it a chance, and try and accept it on its own terms. I did, and I loved it!
The production was by Robert Lepage, who also brought us *La Damnation de Faust* (which I loved), *The Tempest* (which inspired mixed feelings in me), *The Ring Cycle* (which I hated). This was one of his strongest productions. It used rows of lights instead of a standard set. Mimmi thought the constant shifting of lights was a little much, and I agree with her. A little twinkling here and there would have been welcome, but not this constant cylcing of lights.
Eric Owens might have been a little miscast as the poet. I think the role calls for a sweeter, more lyrical, less heroic sound. It's been sung by Dwayne Croft, Gerald Finley, and Russell Braun, all of whom have exactly the kind of voice I have in mind. Owens sang beautifully and put his individual stamp on the music - - he's a great artist and can do no wrong, but maybe he's not really the best guy for this piece.
Susanna Phillips was the countess. Lovely singing from start to finish, gorgeous feeling for the French and the moods of the music, and a beautiful sense of stillness in her performance. She's given the one bit of high drama, a sort of breakdown-slash-mad-scene near the end of the opera, and she did a stellar job with that, though I'm not convinced that it really works in the opera.
My favorite of the three singers was Tamara Mumford as the pilgrim. Oh what a gorgeous voice, and a warm, luscious, fluid, centered, sincere, direct way of singing. She is the real deal and this is a great step up for her at the Met. She's sung many tiny and small parts at the Met, her only previous sizable role was as Smeton in *Anna Bolena.* I think she might have more plums in her future, she's a wonderful singer.
Mimmi and I had a stimulating talk during intermission and after the opera about all of the issues that it was examining: the old standbys of love and death, but more specifically, the issue of a love from afar, the "l'amour de loin" of the title. I was reminded of a line from Woody Allen's *Shadows and Fog* - - a lousy movie, but a memorable line: "The only love that lasts is unrequited love." The poet has a little of that going on, he doesn't want to have his love of the countess sullied by actually MEETING her. So he's really only in love with the idea of her. The countess has a more realistic point of view: she's wrapped up in the mystery and romance, but on a certain level, maybe she thinks the guy is less trouble being far away.
I asked Mimmi to review my review before I published it (it's usually Richard who does this), and she said this: "The only thing I would add is the thrill it gave me to see Kaija Saariaho and Susanna Malkki take the stage at the curtain call. A woman conductor AND a woman composer! at the Met! Not to mention the pride for Finland I felt :) " Malkki is only the fourth woman to conduct at the Met. Astonishing.