Dante spent his entire life idolizing a woman whom he first saw when she was 9, and who spoke to him only once, while passing him in the street. His passion for Beatrice might seem absurd, if he hadn’t written La Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy under her influence.
Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin (2000) is based on the legend of another medieval poet, Jaufre Rudel, who wrote verses about “ amor de lonh” – love from afar. In the opera, as in some Romantic tellings of the tale, Rudel hears of a woman resembling his poetic ideal, travels over the sea to find her and dies on the shore in her arms.
The piece is one long meditation on love, less as a lived relationship than as a spiritual force that may fly a long way before finding its object. In Amin Maalouf’s libretto, both Rudel and his princess yearn for far shores, their thoughts turning back upon themselves in elaborate circles. Saariaho’s vaporous music does something similar, creating an expectant, wondering atmosphere while remaining relatively static. A chord or string of notes appears, and the orchestra begins to feel it out, repeating its tones in different registers and colours, mulling over this bit of information before passing on to the next.
It’s a beautiful, sometimes hypnotic procedure, and in the Canadian Opera Company’s opening-night performance, sounded both luxuriant and austere. Saariaho adapts a medieval tune in some sections, but there was no feeling of discontinuity between the bony simplicity of that melody and her colouristic scoring, delicately realized by conductor Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra.
It’s a long show for the three principals: Rudel (baritone Russell Braun), Clémence (soprano Erin Wall) and the Pilgrim who mediates between them (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo). These three Canadians showed the best of their extensive art, singing beautifully and somehow managing to fill out characters that might in other hands have seemed like debating positions set to music.
They didn’t get much help from stage director Daniele Finzi Pasca, who animated the stage by filling it with acrobats, rhythmic gymnasts and scenic elements (by Jean Rabasse) that flew in and out unexpectedly. One woman periodically upstaged everyone by whizzing across the rear of the stage doing tricks while hanging upside down from a rope. Visually, the first half was a colourful pageant trying and failing to connect with a cantata.
The second half was less restive and more effective, thanks in part to Roberto Vitalini’s gorgeous stage-filling video projections. But Pasca still had no idea what to do with the singers, who mainly stood their ground.
Kevin Pollard’s costumes gave the piece an Asian look, which with the style of movement made some episodes seem like operatic outtakes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What the show really lacked was a choreographer, who might have helped Pasca’s imaginative tableaux find better ways of engaging with text and music.
The final scene brought out the chorus, heard earlier and somewhat indistinctly from offstage, for a kind of Liebestod over the body of the dead poet. Wall was particularly compelling in this scene, her voice soaring out in a way that embodied the character’s pain but that also emphasized the opera’s unstated question: Were these people singing about longing for another person, or about a sacred love that can’t remain in the flesh? For that matter, was the Pilgrim really a pilgrim, or the spirit of poetry, planting a seed in the poet’s mind that flowered not into love, but into words and music?
L’Amour de loin
- Canadian Opera Company
- At the Four Seasons Centre
- In Toronto on Thursday
L’Amour de Loin continues through Feb. 22.