I was virtually blown away by the sheer beauty of the music in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho´s first opera L´amour de loin, which now has appeared on DVD in a Peter Sellars production from the Finnish National Opera.
Saariaho´s music is both lucid and transparent with a dream-like quality, describing moods rather than events, a quality matched by the relative absence of action in the opera as well. Saariaho obviously knows how to work with a large orchestra and the orchestration is simply exquisite.
L´Amour de loin is based on medieval French poems about about A Troubadour falling in love with A Countess he has never seen. A Messenger travels between them. When they finally meet, he dies in her arms. Short on physical action, the opera explores the various feelings of the protagonists such as doubt, longing, insecurity. In that respect the work bear resemblance to Debussy´s Pelleas and Melisande. And to Tristan and Isolde. Gregorial church music seems to have inspired Saariaho as well and the almost oratorial quality including an invisible choir commenting on the action bears resemblance to Stravinsky´s Oedipus. That said, Kaija Saariaho´s language is unique and highly individual.
Peter Sellar´s setting is very simple: A tower, where the lover/loved lives; water; a boat for the Messenger travelling back and forth between the Troubadour and the Countess.
Esa-Pekka Salonen draws a wonderfully transparent sound from the orchestra and all three protagonists convince.
Only one thing I cannot help but wish for: While there is surely a lot of wisdom to gain from French medieval poetry, I would have appreciated if Saariaho had chosen a more modern textual source for her opera - to experience this outstanding music in a more contemporary context would have been fascinating. However, this is merely an afterthought.
Dawn Upshaw and Monica Groop:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
All singers: 5
Peter Sellars: 4
Esa-Pekka Salonen: 5
Overall impression: 5