Long-Distance Love

Kaija Saariaho's 'L'Amour de loin' is the object of desire this summer in Santa Fe.

In a high desert amphitheater outside Santa Fe, N.M., you will find an outstanding American singer and provocative American director involved in a stage work featuring words by a Lebanese novelist and music by a Finnish composer. Composed two years ago and now receiving its first U.S. performances, L'Amour de loin is the greatest French opera since Debussy's 1902 Pelléas et Mélisande.

Much ballyhooed since its initial performances in Salzburg and Paris, L'Amour de loin establishes Kaija Saariaho as one of the leading composers of our time and is by far the highlight in a Santa Fe Opera season of middling quality. Only three performances of L'Amour de loin were scheduled (compared to 10 of La Traviata), and all sold out well in advance. You may get lucky and obtain a released seat for the August 9 performance; it's certainly worth a few phone calls to the box office and the eight-hour drive to Santa Fe--especially because right now you can catch all five operas and sample the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival within about a week's time.

Saariaho, who turns 50 this year, was born in Finland and was a young new-music provocateur there in the company of Esa-Pekka Sallonen, who went on to become the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She left Finland in 1981 to study with avant-gardists in Germany, then settled permanently in Paris and fell in with the cutting-edge crowd at IRCAM, the music research and performance center then directed by Pierre Boulez, the fearsome French intellectual with a taste for Teutonic theory.

Yet Saariaho has not become a Darmstadt/IRCAM clone. She is less interested in theory and structure than in the sheer sensuality of sound. This is not to say that her music is conventionally pretty. At a chamber festival concert the night before L'Amour de loin's July 27 American premiere, the fearless New York cellist Felix Fan gave a brilliant performance of her Sept Papillons (2000). What other composer could evoke butterflies in seven virtuosic miniatures that call forth the cello's most guttural tones? Yet Saariaho's fascination with harmonics and trills, her comfort with quiet and silence, her balance and concentration all create beauty from sounds that in another context would frankly be ugly.

Sept Papillons and L'Amour de loin place Saariaho in the great French tradition of abstract sensualists beginning with the late works of Claude Debussy and continuing through the music of Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux.

For L'Amour de loin, Paris-based Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf (The Crusades through Arab Eyes, Samarkand, The Rock of Tanios), in consultation with Saariaho and director Peter Sellars, crafted a lean, poetic libretto inspired by the life of 12th-century French troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Jaufré's song texts varied the theme of l'amour de loin, or love from afar. It was a concept of pure love focused on a woman who existed only in his imagination, rather than some local lady of the court he hoped to bed down.

The opera literalizes Jaufré's relationship with his "distant love," identifying her as Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, a woman he knows only by reputation. Thus, as Sellars pointed out the day before the premiere, L'Amour de loin is "about the West dreaming about the East, and the East dreaming about the West"--a preoccupation in Maalouf's work. Indeed, when Jaufré first hears of Clémence, he's given a description only of her character, and immediately creates his own detailed but imaginary account of her beauty.

Scenic designer George Tsypin has flooded the stage with ankle-deep water representing the Mediterranean, across which the Pilgrim (Finnish mezzo Monica Groop) steers a crystal boat between the France of Jaufré (Canadian baritone Gerald Finley) and the Tripoli of Clémence (American soprano Dawn Upshaw). Each of the distant lovers inhabits a tall spiral staircase at opposite ends of the stage. Each set of stairs winds around a slender pillar emanating ever-shifting light--a cold blue-green for Jaufré, a warm orange-gold for Clémence. Lighting designer James F. Ingalls illuminates all this almost entirely from within the pillars, rather than from spots and floodlights on an overhead grid. Obviously, we are dealing with inner worlds, rather than objective realities.

Sellars, despite his many quirks and his taste for placing historical stories in contemporary settings, has always been expert at drawing precise, honest, human-scaled but intense emotional expression from singers, and he does so even in this austere setting. He has also been fond of odd patty-cake routines, but here he limits the symbolic gesturing to Clémence just at the end, her hand movements creating a sign language that ritualizes and universalizes her sung language.

Sellars also assigns the lovers specific body stances. Jaufré, who passes most of the opera in a self-circumscribed world, often hugs his pillar; Clémence, who yearns for the world outside her citadel in Tripoli, continually sweeps her upper body dangerously far over the railing.

Saariaho calls for an 80-piece orchestra that's usually deployed in small ensembles for precise, delicate effects, plus electronics that, like the offstage chorus, are subtly woven into the acoustic fabric. Under conductor Robert Spano, the music shimmers and moans, maintaining an atmosphere of longing and private discontent for an unbroken two hours and 15 minutes.

The vocal lines, though wide-ranging and demanding, tend to be smoothly melismatic rather than relying on huge, ungainly leaps. The initial material for Jaufré sounds very much like a Medieval troubadour song in a modern, atonal context, while also reminding us of how strongly French music of the period was influenced by the Moorish presence in Spain. Also memorable are the Pilgrim's haunting delivery to Clémence of one of Jaufré's songs, and Clémence's desolate final solo.

Groop's French is abominable, and Finley's is barely adequate (he's from Montreal, and should know better), but both sang their wandering lines with focus, accuracy and comfort. Upshaw, always a text-centered singer, displayed fine French and was in typically excellent voice, after a brief period of letting her high notes go hard and nasal. Her voice isn't as girlish as it was 10 years ago, but it remains pure and lithe, and she still has a sexy way of sliding up to a high note without hooting.

This summer's opera offerings also include Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers in a production I know nothing about; Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, with Patricia Racette and Rodney Gilfry starring in a Jonathan Miller production that has cautiously positive buzz; Mozart's unfairly neglected La Clemenza di Tito conducted a bit sloppily by the usually reliable Kenneth Montgomery, directed with psychological penetration by Chas Rader-Shieber, and featuring an outstanding Sesto in the person of mezzo Kristine Jepson; and a mundane treatment of Verdi's La Traviata with decent but unexceptional singing by husky-voiced Sondra Radvanovsky and Massimo Giordano, characteristically dull conducting by John Crosby and brain-dead stage direction from Bruce Donnell. The operas run in repertory through August 24, but with the Saariaho ending the 9th and the Mozart closing the 14th.

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival runs concurrently through August 19 with generous helpings of Brahms and Bach and less familiar Romantic fare played by the always excellent KLR Trio, Orion Quartet, Pinchas Zukerman and the usual festival suspects. There are also several interesting new pieces. Downtown New York composer Annie Gosfield's rhythmically bracing contributions last week were like Béla Bartók riffing on Purple Haze.

A sure festival highlight will be August 7, when Upshaw is featured in Saariaho's song cycle Lonh, based on texts by the real Jaufré Rudel. Wherever you turn, the deeply shy, intelligent, seldom-smiling but subtly witty Kaija Saariaho is the dominant force in Santa Fe this summer. It's her latest victory in what will soon be a world conquest.