Thursday, April 4, 2019

Timeless and beguiling, L'Amour de loin casts its spell in a new production from Ópera de Bellas Artes in Mexico City

A timeless and beguiling quality accompanies Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s 21st century opera based on a 12th century source, L'Amour de loin (“Love From Afar”). So too does a sense of the placeless and borderless despite its documented setting of Aquitaine in France, Tripoli in northern Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea that separates them. Little wonder then that since its world premiere in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival, the work has received numerous stagings around the world, including a season at the Metropolitan Opera in an acclaimed production directed by Robert Lepage in 2016.

Carla López-Speziale as the pilgrim and Jaakko Kortekangas as Jaufré
But it took a journey to Mexico City for me to witness first-hand the power of the work in the theatre. For its national premiere at the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Arte, Saariaho’s first opera was glorified in a thoughtfully abstracted new production from Ópera de Bellas Artes driven by intensely focused performances and scenographic movement from director Mauricio García Lozano.

L'Amour de loin tells the story of the well-known troubadour and prince of Blaye, Jaufré Rudel and his yearning for a love, assumed impossible, far away from the pleasures and entitlements he has exhausted. When a pilgrim informs him that a woman who befits his longing exists, the countess of Tripoli, Jaufré’s hopes are raised. The pilgrim acts as a go-between, relaying a rhapsodic song Jaufré sang for her and lifting the countess’ spirits. Her name is Clémence, originally from Toulouse and filled with a longing to return. The pilgrim returns to Jaufré who decides he wants to make the trip to Tripoli to meet Clémence. He and the pilgrim sail together but Jaufré becomes increasingly sick as they approach port. The two meet, express their devotion but their time is tragically brief. Jaufré dies in her arms. An agonised Clémence, in a transfiguration of sorts, decides to enter a convent.

On the surface, there seems little this medieval tale offers to a globally connected modern world. Less character-identifying and more conceptual in approach, underneath, however, exists a tugging to-and-fro of opposites - of male and female, of the known and unknown, of curiosities and fears and of the existential and divine. Altogether, Saariaho has created the ambience of a sacred oratorio in which inexplicable forces bind then tear Jaufré’ and Clémence apart.

An introspectively focused piece, if the vibrations of the cosmos were attempted to be harnessed in music, L’Amour de loin could come close to describing it. Liquid, luminous, ethereal, full of textural contrasts and exotic colours, the ebb and flow of Saariaho’s score effortlessly parallels the poetic, often esoteric nature of Lebanese author Amin Maalouf’s libretto. In particular, the use of brass is utterly breathtaking. Just as a ship’s foghorn resonates, so too does Saariaho’s brass as it communicates across a body of water. And just as a pebble causes ripples when thrown into a pond, so too do Saariaho’s orchestral harmonies and layers in generating alluring motion.

Agnieska Sławińska as Clémence
Sung in French with Spanish titles, I expected some difficulty in understanding the nuances. A decent command of Italian helped to some point but Lozano’s direction elucidated the poetic and Jorge Ballina’s design captured the dramatic flow so superbly, the synergy of music, text and staging brought ineffable clarity.

Ballina’s thoughtfully abstracted and seductively realised design goes far in highlighting isolation, separation and time.  A black proscenium-filled screen opens up in a various assortment of horizontal slits and broadening or diminishing rectangles and squares to pinpoint and expand the setting. Behind, layers of translucent screens backlit with bands of bright light are raised and lowered to evoke both sea and sky. Opal-blue and sandy-gold predominate, a slither of stone represents each of the two ‘continents’ and, although  planar in effect, perspective is altered frequently. Artist Mark Rothko’s compositional aesthetic fused with the dynamism of Kinetic art might give some indication of the Ballina’s artistic imagination. Victor Zapatero and Rafael Mendoza’s aqueous illuminations and Mario Marin del Rio’s character-distinguishing period-fluid costumes suitably assist the effect.

Most mesmerising of all is the illusion created as perspective changes to give a birds eye view of Jaufré and the pilgrim sailing across the sea, Clémence swimming below as part of Jaufré’s hallucination and the little red boat transporting them taking on the form of a conspicuous vaginal cocoon. Or was I mistaken? But nestled in female genitalia somehow gives Jaufré both maternal protection with thoughts of love’s sexual expression on his long voyage.

For its two-hour length, not including interval, you would hardly think L'Amour de loin is so demanding a sing because the three soloists - Jaakko Kortekangas as Jaufré, Agnieska Sławińska as Clémence and Carla López-Speziale as the pilgrim - gave an effortlessly convincing picture and form to their roles. Portraying Jaufré with a dignified yet soulful demeanour, Finnish baritone Kortekangas’ arcing performance across vulnerability and eventual collapse was delivered with compelling sensitivity. Burnished and smooth of tone, Kortekangas cut an imposing figure, making great impact with his voice’s warmer lyrical qualities in particular. The resonance certainly was evident but occasion cried out for heftier declamatory lines that could have elevated the effect immensely.

Carla López-Speziale as the pilgrim
Staff permanently in hand and wispily bearded, Mexican local López-Speziale capably shaped the fluid, often meditative tone of the pilgrim with her rich-toned mezzo-soprano. But the luminaire of the evening, on this third night of four performances, was Strasbourg-based Polish soprano Agnieska Sławińska. Lucent, pure and assured in voice, while combining dramatic and expressive command, Sławińska embodied Clémence in vivid states of sadness, hope, passion and grief with striking poignancy and beauty.

A large unseen but resplendent chorus back of stage is woven into the trio of voices adding comment with eerie echoes and rhythmic chants. At times, electronic enhancements provide an enveloping field of sound that whispers in the ear to add a surreal touch. And the daunting task of sculpting the entire near-hypnotic ambience came down to Mexican conductor José Areán who embraced every phrase with a passionate sense of command. Importantly, the pit musicians never broke the spell they cast in playing the shimmering and strident stream of sound with precision.

In the end, it might not so much be the story you take away with you and a complete sense of having understood its meaning as it is an immersion in the journey from one state to another that Saariaho takes you on. That alone is transformative and an experience contemporary lives can do with. So, where to next for L'Amour de loin? Could it be that Australia will nourish its opera-goers with its effect some time soon?

And finally, based on the quality and creativity Ópera de Bellas Artes have brought to the stage, its sad to leave without knowing whether I’ll ever return again to see another work. I certainly want to believe, like Jaufré, I can make that long journey too.

L'Amour de loin 
Ópera de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
Until 4th April, 2019

Production Photos: courtesy of Ópera de Bellas Artes

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