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July 04, 2009

Acrobats in L'Amour de Loin at ENO
Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin is an opera I hold near and dear to my heart. Especially so in the original Peter Sellars staging from the 2000 Salzburg Festival, which was later brought to Santa Fe and elsewhere and filmed for a wonderful DVD in Finland under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen. This being said, it may be hard for me to have a completely reasonable perspective on the UK premiere of the work at the English National Opera that opened on July 3. Despite these trepidations, though, I figured it was another chance to hear this darkly beautiful work live again, so no matter what, it couldn’t be that bad. Plus I'm a firm believer in not getting too stuck in one's ways or one's perceptions about what is and isn't "intended" or "appropriate" when it comes to opera. So, it wasn’t bad at all. In fact this production of L'Amour de Loin is quite good.

Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

Now, let it be said that there is nothing in this production remotely as great as Dawn Upshaw supine and half submerged in a stage flooded with water, but it was filled with beautiful imagery from the mind of Daniele Finzi Pasca. Pasca is best known for his work with Cirque du Soleil, and, while I know that seems like anathema for more rigid opera fans, for an opera that is as ethereal as Tristan und Isolde to begin with, not being earthbound is a decided asset. The show is in fact populated by acrobats and aerialists. Each of the three primary characters, Jaufré Rudel, Clémence, and the Pilgrim have two doppelgangers or "spirits" who don’t necessarily always accompany them on stage, but do perform some highwire feats when the characters are around or referenced by others in their absence. The doubles are not acting out the action described by the vocalists, but are non-earthbound counterparts. The brightly colored stage is spare, often filled with more gossamer fabric than you can shake a stick at. Or should I saw more gossamer fabric than you can shake on a stick, or undulate, or send flying stageward from the upper balcony over the heads of the audience. It does give the whole thing a mystical feel and fits well with the North African and Middle Eastern references in the libretto. Light is another major motif, and in the final chorus, the performers are armed with mirrors to reflect intense beams from the stage out into the theater as Jaufré and his two "spirits" descend from above on cables. There are, of course, multiple references to the sea both in the fabric and in a series of video projections used in Act IV and elsewhere.

Some of that fabric in L'Amour de Loin
Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

But all this airborne activity doesn’t always save the day. Some scenes seemed to bewilder the design team such as Rudel’s arrival in Tripoli near death. Here, his double is wheeled out on a table kept to the side of the stage and the principals encircle him in a way that breaks much of the dramatic tension over his impending death since its not really clear of the six or seven figures on stage, who is singing what to whom. Then there is the matter of the two carnival huskers who appear at the start of each act with a cart used to perform a shadow puppet show of their own, referencing events to follow. These two at times seem a throwback to a circus performance not directly related in tone to the rest of what’s going on. And despite all of the motion, the show more often than not is an essentially stand and deliver affair for the vocalists, which given the nature of the libretto is admittedly hard to avoid. But Pasca doesn't seem to know what to do with the singers unless they're being tossed about above the stage.

Joan Rodgers as Clémence with Rudel stand-in
Photo: Johan Persson/ENO 2009

Vocally things are more solid. Roderick Wiliams sings Rudel with strength and often a good amount of warmth. Faith Sherman's Pilgrim is clear and brightly toned and Joan Rodgers' Clémence is solid if not dark or haunting. Both of the women are burdened with odd costumes—the Pilgrim looking rather outer space-like and Clémence in a ridiculously matronly outfit when she first appears that can drive one to distraction. I like to think that most operas can stand translation into other languages, but I must admit, I felt L'Amour de Loin lost something in this transition from French to English, which made it seem less poetic and more pedestrian. All of this was under ENO’s very talented music director, Edward Gardner, who championed the four performances of this opera to be seen here over the next week as he has other 20th-century works including Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, which will open the next ENO season. He has a good command of Saariaho's score, and, while I felt the ENO orchestra was a little circumspect at times, it was still one beautiful opera. So is it worth seeing? If you're in London you'd be foolish to miss it. It's a rare opportunity to see something remarkably beautiful. And even if it isn't in the original wrapper, any opera worth its salt must live on through alternate visions of its core attributes. And so L'Amour de Loin lives on.

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