BWW Review: Stunning Phillips in Saariaho's Mesmerizing L'AMOUR DE LOIN at the Met

BWW Review: Stunning Phillips in Saariaho's Mesmerizing L'AMOUR DE LOIN at the Met

BWW Review: Stunning Phillips in Saariaho's Mesmerizing L'AMOUR DE LOIN at the Met
Susanna Phillips and Tamara Mumford.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
BWW Review: Stunning Phillips in Saariaho's Mesmerizing L'AMOUR DE LOIN at the Met
Susanna Phillips as Clemence. Photo:
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

On paper, it might seem that Kaija Saariaho's L'AMOUR DE LOIN (LOVE FROM AFAR), libretto by Amin Maalouf, couldn't possibly fill a stage the size of the Met's: three characters and a chorus that bobs in and out of the action. Yet, in action, this breathtaking, shimmering piece not only seems at home--particularly in the able hands of soprano Susanna Phillips and the Met orchestra under the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki in Robert Lepage's production--but it's hard to imagine hearing it any other way.

The story in short: On one side of the sea 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 abroad 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.'

It has been a long haul for such an acclaimed opera to reach the Met--the first by a woman in a century, with one of the few female conductors--having had a glowing reception at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 and similar raves at many other houses around the world. Better late than never for this marvelous piece.

Six weeks ago, Saariaho, Malkki, director Lepage and singers Phillips and mezzo Tamara Mumford along with the Met's general manager Peter Gelb gathered to talk about the creation of the production at the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process series. The word that was most used to describe L'AMOUR was "shimmering" and, having seen it now on stage, it was most apt. It describes the production, the voice of Phillips and, most certainly, the seductive music of Saariaho with its vast orchestral colorings, whether in the use of percussion with its tingling elements or of the soprano. It was fascinating in every way.

Hearing Phillips as Clemence, the lady of Tripoli, in this complex music--which seemed natural and easy coming out of her mouth--was a revelation. Having only seen her at the Met as Musetta in LA BOHEME, where her "Quando m'en vo" (Musetta's Waltz) stopped the show dead, one could never have imagined the subtleties of her gorgeous singing, and acting, here. The development of her character, from the rather stand-offish lady who first hears of her 'love from afar' through the Pilgrim (Mumford) to the nurturing figure who holds the dying Jaufre (bass Eric Owens), was as clear and pure as her voice. Her final aria was devastatingly beautiful.

As the go-between, the Pilgrim, Mumford brought dignity and mellow sounds--and a bit of humor--to her role. Her smoky mezzo did its most memorable work in explaining the obsession of Jaufre to Clemence, working to conjure up pieces of his melodies to explain his ardor. I found Owens less convincing as Jaufre, neither in his ardor nor his torment, perhaps because the music didn't seem to fit his voice so well.

Conductor Malkki, sure-handed and most commanding, showed why she is so well known and valued in contemporary music circles. The Met orchestra took to Saariaho's unfamiliar vocabulary brilliantly at every turn and were a joy to hear, with no small credit to the conductor. The Met chorus, under Donald Palumbo, was an odd, shadowy presence, with their heads bobbing up and down from beneath the strands of LED lights representing the sea in Lepage's production with Associate Director Sybille Wilson.

At the Guggenheim panel discussion, Lepage decried his reputation for being obsessed with technology, saying that he only happens 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." I'm not so sure I buy that explanation, but, in any case, the use of LED lights and video to represent the sea working miraculously well, again bringing back that word "shimmering." Kevin Adams's lighting, Lionel Arnould's landscape image design and Mark Grey's sound design were all crucial elements in the unpredictable and wildly successful atmosphere of the piece.

However, those of us who remember some of the mechanical disasters of Lepage's production for Wagner's Ring cycle at the Met, found, once again, hydraulics were not his friend, in this set design by Michael Curran, who also did the costumes. There was a breakdown, and unexpected intermission, on the night I attended, as one of the much too industrial-modern-looking devices that represented towers, staircases and other locations (some reminiscent of Di Caprio and Winslet on the prow of the Titanic) had a nervous breakdown. Though it didn't last as long as some of the breaks in Wagner's Ring, surely, it could have been done more simply, with less opportunity for electronic mishap.

But hooray for Saariaho, Malkki, Phillips, Lepage and company for this unprecedented success. The question is, of course, as with nearly every contemporary piece: When are they doing it again?

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Additional performances of L'AMOUR DE LOIN are on December 21, 24mat and 29. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. Running time: 2 hours and 33 minutes, one intermission.

Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of L'Amour de Loin are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.

Additional performances: December 17, 21, 24mat, 29. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here.
Running time: 2 hours and 33 minutes, one intermission.

Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of L'Amour de Loin are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.