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BWW Preview: Works & Process at Guggenheim Looks at the Met's L'AMOUR DE LOIN, Through December 29

Left to right: Susanna Phillips and Tamara Mumford.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Composer Kaija Saariaho is a woman of few words but potent music, judging by her comments about her acclaimed opera, L'AMOUR DE LOIN, and the excerpts performed at the Guggenheim's Works & Process series several weeks ago, in preparation for the opera's much-anticipated Met debut on Thursday, December 1.

For more than 30 years, Works & Process has been presenting a look inside the creation of outstanding works of art in the museum's intimate Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Peter B. Lewis Theater, combining conversation and performance. For L'AMOUR DE LOIN, the panel included composer Saariaho, the Met's conductor Susanna Malkki (chief of the Helsinki Philharmonic), director/designer Robert Lepage, Met General Manager Peter Gelb (the moderator) and two of the production's stars, soprano Susanna Phillips and mezzo Tamara Mumford.

Susanna Phillips. Photo: Ken Howard/
Metropolitan Opera.

The results were some powerful insights into Saariaho's work, Lepage's ideas for bringing it to the stage, and Malkki's view of the exceptional score, featuring excerpts with accompaniment for chamber orchestra arranged by the composer for the occasion. Phillips' gorgeous soprano "shimmered"--a term that was used frequently among the participants to describe the music and the setting of the opera--while mezzo Mumford's low, sultry voice had a distinct gravitas to it. Here are some of the highlights of the discussion for me.

Gelb called L'AMOUR DE LOIN "an important and milestone production for the Met"--one that he wanted to stage since he took his position 11 years ago--while conductor Malkki described it as "a timeless, beautiful story of human emotions." Director Lepage--who gave the Met its infamous 45-ton production of Wagner's DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN--said "the music is mesmerizing, hypnotic and I was seduced by it very early." And the composer herself described how she was drawn to the linear nature of the story and its simplicity, because it left "a lot of place for music," explaining that she wanted to investigate the feelings we have about love--and "how do we react when lose somebody we love." (Librettist Amin Maalouf was missing from the discussion.)

It's a pretty intimate opera for the Met, with just three main characters--a far cry from the cast of thousands the stage can accommodate in AIDA, TURANDOT or LA BOHEME. It tells the story of, well, the title pretty much says it, L'AMOUR DE LOIN--LOVE FROM AFAR, about would-be lovers who are separated by a wide, expansive sea, with a traveling messenger communicating for them. There are echoes of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, TANNHAUSER and PELLEAS ET MELISANDE in the story.

The story in short: On one side is the Prince, Jaufre, tired of his life of pleasure and dreaming of something more, a true love. Then there's the Pilgrim, who arrives from overseas and tells him that the woman of his dreams, Clemence, the Countess of Tripoli, really exists. On her part, Clemence is not sure she deserves such devotion or whether they should meet at all. He, on the other hand, definitely wants to see her and sets sail--only to become ill and arrive near death. They meet--and he dies in her arms. She enters a convent and the opera ends ambiguously, with her praying to either to God or to her other 'love from afar,' Jaufre.

Gelb described how, when the opera was first staged at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, directed by Peter Sellars, the stage was flooded with water--a feat difficult to duplicate at the Met, a repertory house. Handing the directorial reins over to Lepage, the results are a quite different kind of sea--made through bands of, about, 28,000 small LED lights. According to Lepage, "The lines of lights are stretched across the stage in this horizontal linear way, creating a false perspective of the sea, animated by different video feeds. People don't actually see videos; they get to see textures. Instead of having real water on stage, you have the real Mediterranean sea on stage," he explained.

"We chose to represent it with the shimmering of the sea--what people see through the whole piece is the hypnotic shimmering that changes colors, changes humor as the music changes, as the story evolves." (Lepage noted, "People think I'm obsessed by technology; I'm not--I just happen to be surrounded by a new generation of designers and others who are obsessed by technology. I'm more like the referee. I'm old guard.")

The director explained how he was inspired by Saariaho's score: "The music is mesmerizing, hypnotic and I was very seduced very early on by it. ... I felt she had come through the challenge of trying to express what it's like to be separated by a sea. The different states, feelings. How can you create a production that is an expression or incarnation of that fascination...the kind of crazy fascination between this troubadour and this lady of Tripoli that becomes intoxicating. The starting point for me was: How can I create something that is not a beginning middle and end...? This was something that kind of swells and swells and swells. It was quite a challenge."

Conductor Makkli conducted the Peter Sellars production of the opera in 2004 at the Finnish National Opera and said she feels "very fortunate to return to this piece over 10 years later, to rediscover what a masterpiece it really is, a timeless, beautiful story of human emotions."

"One of the extraordinary things about it is how the words and music go hand in hand all the time. There are many references in music history about a librettist and the composer having found each other and I think this is definitely the case with this story. It's a fantastic psychological storytelling from the composer, a fantastic score to work with, with its profondeur [profundity] in the magical feelings--the hints of the feelings that the characters don't yet know what is going to happen to them and the music leading us into these things."

While composer Saariaho--who studied composition at the Sibelius Academy in her native Finland before coming associated with Pierre Boulez's IRCAM institute in Paris, where she remains based today--has written several operas since L'AMOUR, she hadn't immediately been attracted to the art form. "As a young composer in Finland I declared that I will never write an opera--I thought it a very dusty art form, with expensive singers superficially showing their high notes. There's no interesting message in that.

"Then I moved to Paris and I started to see productions in Europe and little by little my definition of opera changed. I started realizing the contrary of what I thought before, that it can be a very deep art form and it can be a fantastic encounter for different artists and it can be something very deep. Having had this change of perception about opera, I then started looking for a story. I proposed this opera to many places and everybody thought it might be interesting but nobody really wanted to realize it. Then I proposed it to Salzburg the former director, Gerard Mortier, who already knew my music, and said he wanted to do it."

It was Mortier--who, at one point was set to take over the old New York City Opera--who took charge of organizing the work and finding the right people to work with.

Gelb asked the composer where she began working on the score. Her answer: the final aria for Clemence. "I had problems getting the libretto (from Maalouf). We found a great librettist in him and we working very well together--but he had never had deadlines in his life. He is used to just work, work--and he didn't want to give me the libretto. Then I said to him--this was in 1996-97--could you fax me please the last page, because this we agreed on and it wouldn't change. So that was the first thing I wrote.

When Gelb asked the conductor how she went about teaching herself to conduct a piece like this, "so complex, so musically rich," Makkli was rather nonchalant about it. "Yes, it's complex in a way, but I find it very natural and very easy. I think the musical message is extremely clear and it's easy for me to follow it. And I'm constantly fascinated by it.

"I would like to return to the word 'shimmer' because that's the way the orchestration is as well--lots of details but they go toward the same goal; for example, the use of percussion with lots of tingling elements that have their own symbolic meanings.... What I find remarkable in the score is that it has such extremes. For example, this aria [for the Pilgrim] is very very simply orchestrated in the opera, pure fourths and fifths and has a medieval character; at the other end, the storm and going over the ocean, the orchestra really becomes the ocean and there is immense power.... I find it just fascinating to be able to play off that."

Gelb noted to her that some of the singers who have sung in this opera--including Gerald Finley (recently at the Met in GUILLAUME TELL) who did Jaufré previously and Eric Owens who's doing it in this production--have said to him that, at a certain point, the felt they had unlocked the secret of the score, that it was something they had to figure it out, but when they found that moment, everything became clear to them. Did Makkli have that revelation?

"Every great composer has his or her language; it takes certain time to enter the universe.... Everything's perfectly logical once you understand the basic elements or in some cases the harmony," she said. "It's a process, yes, but then you can see the clear logic in it. I would also like to mention what I find extraordinary also is how the composer has combined these elements into her own musical language, with smooth transitions between different aspects of it. I still find there are endless discoveries daily, even ten years later. And I've done a lot of other music by [Saariaho] during these years and when I come back to this piece it's even greater than I remember. It's a fabulous work....It's also because this music breathes--it's very natural--it's not like we're executing sounds and notes but we're making music and that's also why I find this piece inspiring."


For information about the Guggenheim's Works & Process series.

Performances of L'AMOUR DE LOIN are scheduled for December 1, 6, 10m, 14, 17, 21, 24m, 29. For more information about the opera and tickets.

The matinee on December 10 will be seen in cinemas as part of the Met's LIVE IN HD SERIES. For ticket information.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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