Saariaho’s “Woman’s Opera” Fascinating But Overdone

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The Metropolitan Opera, full of ballyhoo and gender politics, praised itself for staging Kaija Saariaho’s 2000 opera L’Amour de Loin on December 1 and broadcasting a performance of it December 10 (today). Apparently it was a success when first staged at the Salzburg Festival, which commissioned it, and so it is being given—in the Met’s own publicity description—via “a dazzling new production by Robert Lepage, featuring glimmering ribbons of LED lights that extend across the length of the stage and over the orchestra pit.”

Dazzling the lights and production may be, but I had some real issues with the music vis-à-vis OPERA, which believe it or not is supposed to be sung drama. The plot doesn’t really involve what I would call a dramatic situation so much as a psychological one. Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye, is tired of the life of pleasure led by the young people of his rank. He yearns for a different, distant love, but he is resigned to the idea that he will never find it. A chorus of his old companions reproaches him for the change and makes fun of him. He tells them that the woman of whom he sings doesn’t exist. Then, a Pilgrim who has arrived from overseas asserts that there is such a woman, and that he has met her. Jaufré can no longer think of anything but her. This launches five full acts of music in which no real action takes place but his search for “the ideal woman,” yet he resists finding it in a real human being. When he does find it, he’s as much terrified by it as drawn to it. Eventually, on the point of death in the last act, he asks to see her. Her presence helps revive him little by little, they sing together, he dies in her arms and she rails against heaven. And that, as they say, is that. Britten’s Death in Venice was an action-packed thriller by comparison.

The music of this opera is interesting melodically, harmonically, and in the effects Saariaho has demanded for the voices, but it has two major flaws. First is that many of the scenes go on too long and also go nowhere; once she finds a mood she likes for the character, she stays there for five or so minutes—in the case of one soprano monologue, twenty or so minutes. The sung lines are essentially tonal but jagged, conveying no graspable melodies. Worse yet, although her music definitely projects moods, it does not seem to have much if anything to do with the actual words sung. In short, Saariaho has composed an interesting if long-winded symphony for voices and orchestra. Her music has even less to do with the ongoing drama than Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande or Berg’s Lulu. In basic form, it is more similar to Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. Those who have seen it in the opera house profess that nothing is going on in the way of acting because there’s nothing for them to do but stand around and sing.

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Apparently even the Professional Critics didn’t have much to say about the plot because it is so threadbare. Anthony Tommasini, in the New York Times, made an offhand and uncalled-for reference to America being “shaken by its own conflicts, having just gone through an election stoked by rhetoric about immigrants and renewed calls for nationalism.” Nothing in the libretto of L’Amour de Loin calls for nationalism. It’s about ideal love. His excuse for injecting politics into his review is, apparently, that when the opera premiered in Salzburg “Europe, especially Austria, was roiled by rising nationalism, movements to protect the sanctity of borders and demonization of the other.’” Did the Salzburg audiences approach L’Amour du Loin with the attitude of nationalist politics? I doubt it. And besides, will someone please tell me what is WRONG with nationalism or “the sanctity of borders”? Who the hell wants one-world-order global Socialism? Kaija Saariaho?

In a nutshell, the female singers, Susanna Phillips and Tamara Mumford, were quite good, although the former had a rapid vibrato that could sometimes be mistaken for a trill, which was a problem because Saariaho wrote a lot of trills for her. On the other hand, baritone Eric Owens, as Jaufré, had a terrible wobble which offset his remarkably deep, rich tone. If they wanted to use an African-American baritone, why not use Gregg Baker, who can sing rings around Owens? Just asking. The conducting of Susanna Mälkki, who the Met rushes to point out is a Woman Conductor of this woman-composed opera, was outstanding in every way considering the very complex orchestral textures she was asked to bring out. But ever since James Levine improved the Met orchestra, restoring it to world-class standards by the late 1970s, it has been able to play virtually any score with excellent results.

The reader may surely infer from the above that I dislike L’Anour de Loin, but that’s not entirely the case. I simply dislike it as an opera because it clearly doesn’t operate as one onstage. When the entire focus of your attention is the lighting and the effects created thereby, and not the characters and their situations, you simply don’t have AN OPERA, no matter how fine the music. And, in the last two acts, the music very definitely becomes rhythmically tauter and more dramatic—though, again, not specifically tied to the text but to a general mood.

Which brings us to the question of why the Met chose to stage this piece in the first place. The only answer I have seen is that it is the work of a woman composer, the last such to have an opera presented at the Met was Ethel Smyth, whose Der Wald came to the New York house on March 11, 1903. Der Wald was far from Smyth’s finest stage work; that distinction belongs to The Wreckers, but apparently the Met felt more comfortable staging a 75-minute woman’s opera than a two-and-a-half-hour one. The reviews were not kind. A review the next day in the New York World described Der Wald as “ultra-modern music, strident, formless, passionate music that stirred the blood with clangor of brass, the shrieks of strings, the plaint of wood winds and disdained to woo the senses with flower-soft melodic phrase.”

But several other woman composers have written operas, and one of them, All Quiet on the Western Front by Nancy Van de Vate, is in my view a musico-dramatic masterpiece. Why not stage that at the Met? Possibly because Van de Vate’s music is cogently dramatic, has form and structure, but is less tonal than L’Amour de Loin and therefore more prone to sour on the Met’s usual audience, which normally consists of Romantic-melodic-loving operagoers to whom a good tune is great music, even if it has a rum-tum-tum rhythm and bears as much resemblance to the drama of the text as Yankee Doodle. All of which is a shame, because I daresay that for all its good points L’Amour de Loin is destined to go the way of Der Wald and Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, which is Nowheresville.

My very serious recommendation to Saariaho, which I doubt she will take even if she deigns to read this blog, would be to chop this score down to about an hour and a half and reform it as a concert piece with voices. That would work remarkably well, I think, so long as one is cognizant of the fact that her music here is more of an allegory for the plot and not, as it is now trying to be, a stage work with living feelings involved. If she does this, I am sure that the chopped-down torso of L’Amnour de Loin will be received with better acclaim. In the meantime, I strongly urge the Met to consider programming All Quiet on the Western Front to raise its audience’s artistic level.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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