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Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 10/10/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Kaija Saariaho is rapidly becoming one of the more daring and creative of our current crop of contemporary composers. Hailing from Finland, she has good colleagues in this country who consistently provide audiences with the rare beauties of her compositions. One of her most ardent supporters is fellow composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen who indeed conducts the performance of her opera "L'Amour de Loin", leading the Finnish National Opera and superb soloists Dawn Upshaw, Gerald Finley, and Monica Groop. The bizarre aspect of this release is that the DVD of the opera was released before the CD of simply the music. One viewing will explain that choice.
The opera is based on a 12th Century tale of love as filtered through the experiences and musings and dreamings and illusions of a countess, a troubadour and a wandering pilgrim. The staging is simple, built around a tower from where the object of love is seen and sees and the characters weave in and out of this simplicity of stage design created by the inimitable Peter Sellars by means of fascinating lighting schemes. There is no 'big story', just 'reflections on love from afar' as the new fairly frequently performed excerpts are called.
Gerald Finley is a brilliant and handsome baritone who not only has a voice of great beauty and clarity but one who is a committed actor as well (he is currently premiering the lead role of Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams' new opera 'Dr. Atomic' with the San Francisco Opera). He is magnificent to hear and to see. Dawn Upshaw and Monica Group take the women's roles and while everyone is aware of the quality of emersion in new work that accompanies the mention of Upshaw's name, Monica Groop prove herself to be in the same echelon. This gorgeous music, perfectly sung and acted, masterfully conducted by Salonen, and the DVD is of the highest quality. While it is a gift to be introduced to Saariaho's fine opera via DVD, it will be good to have the recording of the music alone to grow into what seems to merit entry into the standard repertoire. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, October 05"
A moving opera with a fantastic libretto, though Saariaho's
Christopher Culver | 01/19/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"In the mid-1990s Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho became attracted to the poetry of Jaufre Rudel, the 12th-century troubadour and lord of Blaye who wrote striking poems of love to a woman far away whom he couldn't and, possibly, never even did meet. In "Lonh" for soprano and electronics (1996), she set one of his songs for Dawn Upshaw to sing, and then she wrote her first opera L'AMOUR DE LOIN ("Love from Afar") on the theme. This 2004 performance is by the Finnish National Opera. It's conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, a long-time proponent of Saariaho's music, having known her since their days at school. This staging is directed by Peter Sellars, whose quirky stage design actually agrees with the composer's intentions this time (imagine that).
According to Rudel's unreliable biography, his love was for the Countess of Tripoli, whom he never saw but to whom he nonetheless pledged his eternal love. Amin Maalouf's libretto treats precisely this part of his life. In the first act, Rudel (a baritone, here Gerald Finley) in his castle reflects how he's stuck in a rut, no longer able to show daring skill with women and make other men jealous. A pilgrim comes and tells him of a woman he saw on the other side of the sea, who is everything Rudel says he desires. The troubadour decides to desire only her, and yet he knows he cannot even see her. The pilgrim is an androgynous persona, treated as male but sung by a woman (a mezzo-soprano, here Monica Groop). This pilgrim moves back and forth across the sea, speaking individually to the Countess of Tripoli (a soprano, here Dawn Upshaw), and then Rudel again. Eventually, Rudel decides to travel with the pilgrim to Tripoli, meeting his destiny in a tragic ending. Maalouf is a fantastic librettist, I can think of few scenes in opera as moving as the duet between Rudel and the Countess in Act IV. And although there are only three characters (and an unseen chorus representing the young men of Blaye and the young women of Tripoli), there is never that there's not enough going on; dramatic tension stays high throughout.
Saariaho's music is quite systematic. The part of Rudel is subtle, full of small steps. The soprano is characterized by wide leaps on a diatonic scale. Strikingly, the song of the pilgrim changes based on who she is addressing, reflecting her role as intermediary. The orchestral music is concerned mainly with timbre, with occasional flashes of vibrant colour as in Messiaen or Debussy. The unseen chorus, consisting as it does of kinsmen and kinswomen who try to bring Rudel and the Countess to their senses, are accompanied by music of disruption: percussion blasts, pizzicato. The music is generally impressive, but some portions prevent me from giving this opera a five-star rating. After the middle of the 1990s, Saariaho's writing changed noticeably, and she began to eschew electronics and write overt melodies, a turn for the worst compared to her masterpieces of the early '90s, such as "Amers", "Du cristal", and "Six Japanese Gardens". Most of the opera holds its own against this early great pieces, and electronics happily abound (many sounds realized at IRCAM). Yet certain moments are all too typical of what she is writing now. Take, for instance, the beginning of act IV, as the pilgrim is sitting in his ship. The music of the scene (written also as an individual piece, the first movement of her "Oltra Mar" for choir and orchestra), is trite and bombastic and like something of out a 1970s sci-fi soundtrack. Or the scene near the end where the people of Tripoli admonish the countess, music so banal and simplistic one would hardly suspect it the work of Saariaho.
I'm never one to review well the sound and video possibilities of DVDs, as I watch them on a laptop screen and listen with headphones, but this is no poor print and the sound seems impeccable. The DVD contains a "bonus" of three interviews, with Saariaho, Salonen, and Sellars. One regrets that there's no interview with Maalouf, who bears such a great part of the responsibility for this work.
In spite of some minor complaints, any fan of contemporary music, or even general opera (there's little of the "weird modernism" or "dissonance" that could frighten traditional listeners) should see this fascinating work. Among the operas of the last 30 years, L'AMOUR DE LOIN will certainly rank among the most universally accessible (it's certainly no Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre")."
An incredible ebb and flow of music
G. Stefan Lazar | San Francisco, CA USA | 09/18/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I must admit, I was mesmerized by this piece. It runs around 2 hrs. and 15 mins. without a break, albeit I took one. The cast of 3 was superb and there is an intensity here that you rarely find in a new work. I takes awhile to get into the flow of the piece but then I just couldn't break away from it. The music is very listenable but will not be to everyone's liking, for sure. I would definitely recommend reading the info in the booklet before starting to watch it."
Mesmerizing is the right word.
contemporaryoperalover | ann arbor, MI, usa | 09/19/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I, too, was mesmerized by this disc--not just the music, which is indeed hypnotic in that Debussy-to-Messiaen strain, but the entire production fascinated me. Those ravishing images--the pilgrim's boat, Upshaw's final "apotheosis" (another right word) in that reflecting pool--say what you will about Peter Sellars and Mozart, or whoever long gone, but here in our troubled century, the vision is perfect. On the stength of this video, I am trying to plan a trip to Paris to see the premiere of Saariaho's next opera, Adriana Mater--also with a libretto by Malouf and staging by Sellars. This is definite proof that opera is still a viable medium."
I concur with other reviewers
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 10/12/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The previous reviewers describe the opera quite eloquently and thoroughly. The music placed in the throat of "Rudel" is particularly moving, and Gerald Finley sings gloriously. As a scholar and performer of troubadour music myself, I find the subtle echoes of Medieval poetry and nearly subliminal inflections of troubadour melody very interesting and effective. This is a masterful opera, beautifully staged."