Completed in 2000, and premiered at the Salzburg Festival that year, L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar) is a fable of imagination and reality. Its starting point is the song by twelfth-century Provençal poet Jaufré Rudel in praise of distant love, fashioned into a spare but focused libretto by Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf. Only three singers are called for, their overall vocal range skilfully differentiated in timbre and character. After a 20-minute first act, moreover, the remaining acts average around 25 minutes – suggesting an alignment of dramatic action with a precisely-gauged musical development.
The synopsis itself is of the ’postage stamp’ variety. Jaufré, a Troubadour, has tired of earthly fulfilment and longs for a love that cannot actually be realised. This is made possible by a wondering Pilgrim, who tells of such a woman in Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. A mutual fascination is built up as Jaufré directs his songs to extolling her virtue, the ’virtual relationship’ threatened when he decides to travel to Syria to meet her. Becoming mortally ill more through weight of expectation than by the arduousness of the journey, Jaufré survives long enough for he and the Countess to confess their love, after which she laments his death and prays – though whether to Holy Love or that ’from afar’ is left in the balance.
Musically, the work has the all harmonic sensuousness familiar from Saariaho’s recent music, with intricacy of texture played down in favour of subtly-layered translucency. This allows the vocal lines to carry with ease – though the instrumental writing, sustained across lengthy time-spans, often has a static feel which risks being more an aural backdrop than an active dramatic component. Provençal music of the period makes a pointed appearance, notably in bursts of choral writing representing the human context, while Saariaho’s experience with electronics is largely restricted to gestural enhancement of an atmospheric rather than intrinsic kind. There are some potent colouristic touches, and one stunning coup-de-théâtre in the resounding chords which depict the fateful journey in Act Four, but the overall experience is an abstract and meditative one.
Vocally, there can be few reservations. Dawn Upshaw had the clarity of line and purity of expression necessary for the Countess, with the absence of a more defined ’character’ undoubtedly in accord with the role as Saariaho and Maalouf envisage it. Beth Clayton’s rich-toned mezzo gave the Pilgrim a seer-like authority, setting events in motion as if preordained from a higher source. And if Gerald Finley’s animated intensity often seemed intent on making Jaufré more of a living, feeling persona than was possible, there was no mistaking his commitment. Robert Spano made a welcome appearance at the helm of the BBCSO – alive to the fastidiousness of the score, while not neglecting an overall dramatic follow-through.
In the absence of Peter Sellars’s Salzburg staging (the collaboration with Saariaho is intriguing in itself), the use of lighting to evoke time and space – particularly the ’Occident-Orient’ remove – was beneficial and not over-intrusive. Whether L’Amour de loin represents the culmination or merely the continuation of a phase in Saariaho’s composing, and whether it has the density of musical thought necessary to sustain further large-scale works, is uncertain. On its own terms, however, the opera proved a pleasurable and at times affecting experience.
- Recorded for BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 26 February 2003