- Robert Lepage in Double TimeTechnics and Media in the Interim
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L’Amour de Loin, by Kaija Saariaho, libretto by Amin Maalouf, directed by Robert Lepage, an Ex Machina Production, The Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY, Winter 2016; 887, created and performed by Robert Lepage, an Ex Machina production, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, Spring 2017.
The 2016–17 New York season included not one, but two opportunities for audiences to see new work by the acclaimed French-Canadian theatre artist Robert Lepage. The first was the United States premiere of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), a work that initially debuted in Salzburg in 2000 under Peter Sellars’s direction, and that Lepage staged in a new production for the Festival d’Opéra de Québec in Summer 2015. The second, which likewise premiered in Canada over Summer 2015, was the enigmatically titled 887, a new solo show hearkening back to the director’s earlier projects in that form (such as La Face cachée de la Lune, 2000), and an opportunity for New York audiences to glimpse Lepage himself performing onstage in a production of his own creation. Both welcome contributions to New York’s performance landscape, the two projects amounted, however coincidentally, to a pair of sustained reflections on the relationship between technological mediation and time, revealing a depth of thoughtfulness, craftsmanship, and elegance in Lepage’s work.
L’Amour de Loin made history at the Met for being the company’s first opera by a female composer in over one hundred years, its only predecessor being Der Wald, a one-act work by the English composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth that appeared in 1903. (Notably, L’Amour also boasted the involvement of Finnish [End Page 34] conductor Susanna Mälkki, who is only the fourth female conductor to work at the Metropolitan in its long history.) Saariaho’s score has since been hailed as a classic of the modern operatic repertory, a work of extraordinary erudition and immense emotional weight.
The libretto, by the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf, is set in the twelfth century and concerns the Aquitanian troubadour-prince Jaufré Rudel (played in the Met production by baritone Eric Owens). World weary and spurned by his companions, Rudel desires the love of a woman who is “Beautiful without the arrogance of beauty. Noble without the arrogance of nobility. Pious without the arrogance of piety.” Through a mysterious Pilgrim (mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford) whom he eventually conscripts as a go-between, Jaufré learns in the first act that just such a woman exists on the other side of the world, the Countess Clémence of Tripoli (soprano Susanna Phillips), and he is soon gripped with obsessive passion for her. From there, the ensuing four acts are meticulously structured around a series of spare, alternating scenes culminating in the pair’s meeting. Act two depicts Clémence learning of Jaufré’s love; act three, his decision to make the journey to find her, and her astonishment to learn of his quest; act four, the long passage across the sea, when Jaufré is seized by an almost Kierkegaardian anxiety and sickness; and act five, their final coming together, when he expires upon seeing Clémence for the first and only time.
With only three characters, bolstered by a double chorus, the opera has something of the strictness, purity, and economy of a Greek tragedy. Meanwhile, focusing as it does on love and poetry in the time of the troubadours, the scenario reflects a collision of romantic and modernist motifs, something akin to Debussy and Maeterlinck’s 1902 symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande, with a similar atmosphere of mystic stillness. As with so much tragic drama, most of L’Amour de Loin orients itself toward the coming of an immense and fateful future, and the suspenseful uncertainty of the libretto takes form and color in the score through thick hues...