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S & H Opera Review

Kaija Saariaho, L’Amour de loin, Théàtre du Châtelet, Paris, 29 November, 2001 (FC)

The first opera of the famed contemporary composer, Kaija Saariaho held the stage at the Théàtre du Châtelet on the 26, 29 November and 2 December. With Kent Nagano and the Orchestre de Paris in the pit, it was the first French performance of L’Amour de loin (The Love from Afar). Critically acclaimed at its first performance at the Salzburg Festival in August 2000, it is also scheduled for the Santa Fe Opera Festival. Saariaho (b. 1952), a Finnish composer currently living in Paris, is yet another of a remarkable group of composers from this small country to achieve considerable notice internationally. Her opera is a passionate and delicate paean to love with exotic harmonies and magical instrumental colours. It reminded me more of the Impressionist composers rather than compositions of her mentor, Pierre Boulez. Telling a story of a troubadour in love with a distant Countess of Tripoli, it is filled with intimations of Arabic musical forms.

Written by the composer specifically for the remarkable soprano Dawn Upshaw as the Countess of Tripoli, Clémence, it also features the excellent baritone, Gerald Finley, as the medieval troubadour Jaufré Rudel. The third member of the cast is mezzo Lilli Paasikivi as a pilgrim who acts as the go-between to unite the lovers. The chamber choir Accentus joined the Orchestre de Paris, discerningly conducted by Nagano. Singing from the highest balconies, they added an often unearthly and affecting accompaniment to the stage action.

This opera is burdened from the beginning by a story with very little action and much reflective musical thought. Her talent as a composer is clear and one can hope that later efforts will involve more complex and dynamic musical expressions than the languid and ultimately static nature of this work. The staging, by the ever-adventurous Peter Sellars, had to be adopted from the vast spaces of Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus but seemed to work well on the Châtelet stage. The golden spiral staircase of the Countess descending from the sky was particularly impressive.

Dawn Upshaw earns further laurels for her performance here. An untiring proponent of contemporary music, she adds still another impressive role to her already full list in the service of new music. Gerald Finley, last seen in Paris in the title role of Don Giovanni, is certainly destined to be one of the major baritones of his time and sang with passion and nuance. Lilli Paasikivi also contributed to the overall high performance level. This listener, for one, will certainly be waiting for Saariaho’s next operatic effort. With an improved dramatic emphasis, she could very well create some of the best operas of our time.

Frank Cadenhead

Dawn Upshaw. Photo credit: Marie-Noelle Robert



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