Monday, December 12, 2016

An afternoon of minimalist opera

It was time not for a movie but an opera at the local bijou, in this case last Saturday’s Metropolitan Opera’s live presentation of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar) at Cineplex’s Devonshire Mall theatres, though the opera was simultaneously broadcast at numerous locations in metro Detroit and around the world. Hard to believe but this was the first opera the Met has presented since 1903 that was written by a female composer. (The libretto was by novelist Amin Maalouf.) Unlike most operas L’amour de loin was very sparse in terms of characters and chorus, though the chorus - their heads anyway - did emerge from time to time from a set that evoked the sea. Otherwise, the performance was just three characters who kept it going through five acts. And, boy, did they did it extremely well. The story, based on original manuscripts, is about a poet who longs for an ideal lover but she is located far across the sea. Eric Owens (bass-baritone) plays the poet Jaufré, Susanna Phillips (soprano) is the idealized Clémence, and Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano) is The Pilgrim who brings the two lovers together. The minimalist production features a series of LED strings of lights representing the sea's waves. The lights change color or go dark, representing, remarkably well, day and night or calm and rough waters. The Pilgrim, an almost androgynous character (as Mumford herself described the role in an interview), links the lovers by sailing back and forth between them. Meanwhile, Jaufré and Clémence, in separate scenes, are perched atop some type of ship deck, or bridge or wharf-like platform that also looks like a structure out of science fiction. The chorus adds critical elements to the story as does Saariaho’s surreal score, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. But it really is all Phillips, Mumford and Owens, whose singing is meditative and full of longing. At first I thought the set too stark but afterwards appreciated it as a suitable backdrop to the characters’ loneliness in an almost otherworldly environment.

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