Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Outremer Of Contemporary Opera

The Metropolitan Opera's current production of Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour De Loin marks the second time in two consecutive seasons that the Met has mounted a new production of a not-hugely-popular French opera about three characters entangled in a rather minimalistic plot, in which all three characters tend not to appear on stage at the same time, and about which the director has said that there is, in fact, an important fourth character, that character being the abstract concept of the sea itself, despite the fact that the opera does, in fact, have an actual fourth character, even if only for a handful of lines, but who should still probably be credited above the abstract concept of the sea in the program.

Well, I liked The Pearl Fishers, so why shouldn't I like L'Amour De Loin?

To director Robert Lepage's credit, the sea in this production, portrayed by strings of multicolored LED lights strung across the stage and over the orchestra, did succeed in hogging the spotlight (so to speak) from the singers. The set was possibly the most impressive part of the production, the lights constantly shifting with the mood and the plot. In a storm sequence at the beginning of Act IV, the strings themselves even moved up and down. Two other set pieces floated on and off stage in between the strings of lights. The Pilgrim's boat, which generally floated across the front of the stage, and a long platform that rotated and tilted into a staircase in a manner which I'm still trying to make sense of. The staircase also spun and floated about the stage between the lights, and along with the Pilgrim's boat, was the main playing area of the opera. Very rarely did any of the characters step on to the stage itself. This was effective in its way, but came with two major downsides.

The first downside is that since most of the action took place off of the surface of the stage itself, in the few instances when a character did step on to the stage (specifically Clemence in Act II), it broke the illusion of the stage being water. (This did not apply in Act IV, where Clemence walked over the water in a dream sequence, or in Act V, when the floor of the stage was made into a legitimate playing area, and all characters at points used it.)

The second downside to this set is that when one edge of the staircase poked just barely off stage, you knew it just had to be because in a moment is was going to pop back out with another character on it. The nature of the set made it easy, and somewhat distracting, to predict exactly when and where characters would enter.

However, there is just one aspect of the blocking which I did not particularly care for. And that is how whenever the chorus appeared, their heads popped up between the strings in a square formation. Now, I don't have a problem with how their heads popped up between the strings. That was quite cool. I just wish that they weren't always in the same square. The chorus doesn't appear a whole lot in this opera, but they could have afforded to mix up the formations a little.

Saariaho's score was well-suited to the text of the opera, and sufficiently varied to provide aural interest. I admit I was a little concerned at first that the opera would find a groove and stick in it, but there was a lot of variety within the acts, and even more so between acts. My favorite of the five acts was probably the third, most likely because it had my favorite line of the whole opera, delivered by the surprisingly snarky Pilgrim. Paraphrased here:
JAUFRE: Pilgrim! You're back! Have you seen my beloved who I've never met and only know about because you mentioned her in Act I?

PILGRIM: Jaufre, it's taken me an unspecified but probably not-insignificant amount of time to go to Tripoli and back in the last two acts. Have you really done nothing but write ballads to this girl in all that unspecified time?

JAUFRE: More or less.

PILGRIM: Get a life! You know, the chorus is saying you're mad.

JAUFRE: And do you think I'm mad?

PILGRIM: If someone tells you you're mad, they don't really think so. If someone thinks you're mad, they just complain behind your back.
I liked the snarky Pilgrim. Of the characters, I think Jaufre and the Pilgrim had the best chemistry together. The Pilgrim facilitated Jaufre's romanticism, but also provided him with a tie to reality, and occasionally enraged him. The Pilgrim's role in the opera as a whole was that of an anchor, keeping Clemence and Jaufre from flying too far off into their fantasies. The Pilgrim's function as a tether was much appreciated by me, as another thing I was a little concerned about early on is that the opera would get a bit too syrupy and romantic. Yes, I know, it is that sort of opera, but there's still a concentration of syrup that's just not good for one's health. Fortunately, the Pilgrim did not only (or merely) dilute the syrup, but gave it a punch of spice, with exchanges like this one:
JAUFRE: I've never been at sea before

PILGRIM: Well, I've been at sea a lot, and I know what I'm doing. So calm down and get some rest.

JAUFRE: Okay

(Pause)

JAUFRE: Pilgrim?

PILGRIM: What?

JAUFRE: Why is the sea blue?

PILGRIM: Because it reflects the sky.

JAUFRE: Oh.

(Pause)

JAUFRE: Pilgrim?

PILGRIM: What?

JAUFRE: Why is the sky blue?

PILGRIM: Because it reflects the sea. Now go to sleep.

I really liked the snarky Pilgrim. (Note: I'm happy to say that I was not the only audience member chuckling at these lines. So if I'm wrong in getting some humor out of this opera, at least I'm not the only one who's wrong.)

Saariaho's score is effective in evoking a medieval sound, and the melodies tend to be modal, evoking something vaguely middle-eastern, which makes sense considering the opera's setting. Much of Jaufre's music was accompanied with crunchy open fifths in the strings, sounding not unlike a Bach partita. There was sufficient repetition of melodies in the score to give it cohesion and help the audience along, most prominently the not-unhummable tune of Jaufre's ballad that the Pilgrim sings in Act II. Some parts of the score reminded me, of all things, of Adam Guettel's score for The Light In The Piazza. In particular, parts of Act II reminded me of "The Joy You Feel" from The Light In The Piazza and parts of Act V of the Octet and Clara's Tirade. I'm not entirely sure I could say why.

If I have any complaint with the score, it's that Saariaho does not employ silence as often or as effectively as I would have liked. In the first place, in an opera so based on sustained atmosphere, silence may not seem intuitive. But sometimes hearing the constant tremolos in the high strings or the low basses became a bit distracting, where I think more might have been said in silence. I think, for instance, a silence both before the Pilgrim starts singing Jaufre's ballad in Act II, and another silence after he finishes, would be beneficial on two counts. One, it would help separate the ballad out of the score as a distinct aria -- which it is supposed to be within the context of the libretto -- and it would help the audience (and Clemence) differentiate between what the Pilgrim is saying as himself, and what he's repeating Jaufre saying. A silence at the end of the aria would also give the ballad a moment to sink in, both for the audience and Clemence. There were various points like this where the continuing music made it difficult for anything to really settle in my mind, as I wasn't sure if the previous thought was over. Silences tell us that we can take a moment to let what we just saw and heard sink in. And sometimes, when so much of the music is so quiet, silence can have the audience listening even more intently than sound can. At some points I found the sustained drone distracting, particularly at points when I felt the primary focus should be on what is actually happening on stage rather than the music -- a rare priority in an opera.

Now, silence also affords the audience the opportunity to applaud if they so choose, and I wouldn't be surprised if Saariaho's goal was to avoid breaking up the opera with applause, but even with silences, I don't think the audience would take that liberty. There was no applause for the conductor at the beginning of the performance, and I think that sufficiently set an applause-free tone for the whole show. (Although since the music started without the warning of applause, it was a couple minutes into the prelude before the audience finally calmed down, and I wasn't a huge fan of that bit. There was applause when the conductor entered after intermission (before Act IV), and the audience seemed far less restless during the prelude to that act.)

And if I have any complaint with the libretto, it's that Jaufre takes far too long to die. But then again, there aren't very many operas in which characters die quickly. Act V was by far the longest act. At only thirty-five minutes, it still felt like a slog. If I have any major advice for opera composers, it's to not extend the ending any more than you absolutely have to. (A major offender in the standard repertoire is Lucia Di Lammermoor, but unfortunately, there's also no good way to cut it down without introducing plot holes or unresolved plot threads.)

In some ways the vagueness of the libretto bothered me, and it left many questions open. How does Jaufre fall ill? How does Clemence resolve her reservations about meeting Jaufre? Did Jaufre really do nothing during the time that passes between Acts I and III? Does he have no troubadoring to do? And does Clemence have no other suitors? But on the other hand, the streamlined story was able to be told in a fairly to-the-point fashion, in only about two and a half hours, with intermission. Ultimately, I think it would be an unwise decision to expand the opera to fill these holes, as it would likely mean extending the run time by an hour or more. Ultimately, L'Amour De Loin does what it sets out to do, without too much philosophizing, and with sufficient variety and relief to be engaging. As a rather conservative opera-goer who is cautious around contemporary works, I would have to unhesitatingly call L'Amour De Loin a success.