Sunday, August 04, 2002

East meets West in Saariaho's sensual new opera

By Janelle Gelfand,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SANTA FE — The American premiere of Kaija Saariaho's new opera, L'Amour de loin (Love from Afar) was a sensual — and sensory — experience.

        The premiere of the opera by Ms. Saariaho (who has been called Finland's hottest composer since Sibelius), with cutting-edge director Peter Sellars and Ohio-born conductor Robert Spano, was sold out for weeks. But it's doubtful that anyone in the audience of 2,189 (plus 100 standing) could have predicted the extraordinary merging of sound, stage and nature that caught up the listener in this exotic tale and timeless sound world.

        Its set was a seamless union with the setting of Santa Fe Opera itself, nestled in the mountains at 7,000 feet. On the stage, a 2,500-gallon ""sea” rippled against the deepening evening sky and mountain backdrop, while a crystal, illuminated boat floated slowly and almost imperceptively across the stage, commandeered by a lone Pilgrim.

        Just as world borders have become blurred, L'Amour de loin hints at the direction of opera in the 21st century. This was a blending of East and West: Ms. Saariaho, who is influenced by decades of work in Paris, colored her score with Asian sounds, birdsong, wordless vocalizations and medieval harmonies that might have been strummed by a troubadour or chanted in a cathedral.

        The love story, of a 12th-century troubadour prince of Blaye, who loves a princess from afar and dies in her arms when he finds her, became pure poetry in the hands of Beirut-born author Amin Maalouf, who wrote the libretto in French.

        Ms. Saariaho tailored the role of Clemence, the distant love of Tripoli, for the American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sang the world premiere in Salzburg in 2000. Canadian baritone Gerald Finley was Jaufre Rudel, the prince who idealizes his love as “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty.”

        Completing the cast of three was Finnish mezzo Monica Groop, the Pilgrim — a go-between — who first tells Jaufre that such a woman exists in Tripoli: “Every gaze was drawn towards her like butterflies with powdery wings that have just spotted a light.”

        Although there was little action, the effect was sensual and absorbing. In its five unbroken acts over 2 1/4 hours (without intermission), the opera created the kind of languid atmosphere one associates with Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (performed at Cincinnati Opera in 2000) or Messiaen's Saint-Francois d'Assise,the work which inspired Ms. Saariaho to write this, her first opera.

        Ms. Saariaho's musical score was ravishing, a luminous canvas that imperceptively wove electronic and gamelan sounds within an 80-piece orchestra. Her melodious music floated somewhere between tonality and timelessness, often grounded with long pedal points and overtones, and colored with delicate bells or exotic drumming. Mr. Spano, who is the new music director of the Atlanta Symphony, kept his orchestra wonderfully transparent in this skillful union of voice and instruments.

        An antiphonal chorus, placed on opposing sides of the theater, was alternately conversational or called upon to whisper ethereal, nocturnal sounds. At times one couldn't tell whether the sounds were real crickets — or singers. It added a sense of spaciousness and mystery — particularly when intoning chant-like.

        The same creative team designed the American premiere as the Salzburg one, and a performance in Paris: Russian designer George Tsypin, James Ingalls, lighting and Martin Pakledinaz, who created flowing costumes. Two towers — transparent spiral staircases — flanked the sea. In a stroke of genius, they lit up with colors and blazing “stars,” meticulously timed to coincide with the luminous washes of music.

        Mr. Sellars had his lovers go up and down the stairs while singing — no small feat — and they were soaking wet and emotionally drained at the opera's conclusion.

        Ms. Upshaw, whose part was slightly reworked for this performance, projected the purity and youthful beauty of Clemence. Her radiant voice was a rhapsodic embroidery full of subtle nuance and stunning passion. She never wavered, even when lying up to her ears in water.

        Mr. Finley was deeply expressive as Jaufre. Much of the joy was in his clarity of delivery, for this was also very much about the sound of the French language. Ms. Groop, dressed in nomadic black as the Pilgrim, sang with allure, warmth and persuasive involvement.

        The feeling of suspension in time is one of Ms. Saariaho's motifs.

        “That's one way to make people listen — to slow down the development of movement, but not to make it obvious,” the composer told a group of 40 music critics assembled for the premiere.

        She had wanted to write about love and death. When she stumbled upon the legend — half truth, half fiction — of the French troubadour Jaufre Rudel, she identified with him immediately.

        “He's a composer and has a hard time adjusting his dreams to reality,” she said. “It's something so unbelievably deep I can't even express it in words.”

        “For me, L'Amour is a perfect opera,” Mr. Sellars said, once breaking emotionally into tears as he spoke about the work. “In its own world, it is a complete vision. ... Rape and murder — Hollywood does that better. The reason for having opera is to have spiritual imagination about the deepest, deepest parts of our lives.”

        L'Amour de loin was sold out for its three performances ending Friday. For information about the Santa Fe Opera season through Aug. 24, call (800) 280-4654 or visit

        Two other of Ms. Saariaho's pieces, “Spins and Spells” and “Sept Papillons,” were performed by cellist Felix Fan at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival last week. On Wednesday, Ms. Upshaw will perform her “Lonh” for soprano and electronics. (505) 982-1890 or


Cincinnati modernists reunited
A year after surgery, teen enjoys new weight
Kendrick: Alive and Well
Lakeside Park dad is one-man 'swat' team
Musician leads 'Sentimental Journey'
We want Elvis look-alikes
Cleo Laine lights up Music Hall
Heat doesn't wilt hot blues fest
Songstress captivates Southgate House
Artwork sought for freedom center
DEMALINE: The arts
- East meets West in Saariaho's sensual new opera
'Flubs and all' roots tug on Paul Westerberg
Miguel Ferrer recalls keeping beat for Rosie, Bing
'Crossing Jordan' ready to battle 'CSI: Miami'
Get to it