Review — L’Amour de loin, English National Opera, London Coliseum, July 2009


If you like Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande you may love this opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, though I prefer music with more bite. It is a static, dreamlike creation lacking theatrical action, though that side of things was ably provided by director Daniele Finzi Pasca. He drew on his experience with Cirque du Soleil, and really did a terrific job, being responsible for the choreography and the lighting design, which was very colourful and clever. Each of the three principals was shadowed by two acrobats, and in that sense it reminded me of the recent Royal Opera production of Acis and Galatea, but this was so much better than Wayne McGregor’s nonsense that there was no comparison at all.

The story itself is based on a love poem by a famous troubadour from 12th century Aquitaine, a period when such poems in the Provençal language dealt with amor de lonh (distant love). The original author was troubadour Jaufré Rudel, prince of Blaye in Aquitaine, and his work had the title La vida breve. There are three main characters: the troubadour Jaufré; a travelling pilgrim; and Cleménce the princess of Tripoli.

The prince is obsessed by the idea of an ideal love, and though his companions mock him, the pilgrim says he has met such a lady, and when he returns to Tripoli, tells Cleménce about the prince. She prefers to remain distant to avoid any suffering, but the prince wants to meet her, and makes the journey, albeit full of foreboding and indecision, from which he becomes seriously ill. By the time he arrives in North Africa he is close to death, and meeting her, dies in her arms, metaphorically consummating his love. She rages against fate and enters a convent, praying to one far away, whether God or her lover we know not.

The libretto by Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf is rather dreamy, like the music. For example as Jaufré travels by ship he asks the pilgrim, “Why is the sea blue?” and the pilgrim responds, “Because it reflects the sky”. “But why is the sky blue?” “Because it reflects the sea”. What are we to make of that — was it in the original by Jaufré himself?

Saariaho’s music is kind to the singers in the sense that they never seem to be battling with it, but easily singing over it, and I thought Faith Sherman did particularly well as the pilgrim. So indeed did Roderick Williams as Jaufré, and Joan Rodgers did well as Cleménce. This UK premiere, under the baton of music director Edward Gardner, presumably did justice to the composer’s intentions, but I have to say that I found it dull. The production however was extraordinary, and I loved the set designs by Jean Rabasse, and the costumes by Kevin Pollard, even if the pilgrim did look like an elf from Peter Jackson’s film version of the Lord of the Rings. The journey by ship was done against a wonderful background of swirling water projected onto a screen, with acrobats performing throughout the voyage. The only thing I didn’t like about the production was the small screen that two performers wheeled to the front of the stage from time to time, showing rather odd images — it was a distraction.

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