Archive for March, 2012

Love from Afar

March 16, 2012

left to right: Acrobat Antoine Marc, Russell Braun as Jaufre, acrobat Ted Sikstrom and acrobat Annie-Kim Dery (in the air) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012. Conductor Johannes Debus, original production by Daniele Finzi Pasca, set designer Jean Rabasse, costume designer Kevin Pollard, and lighting designers Daniele Finzi Pasca and Alexis Bowles. Photo: Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper Photographic

The Canadian Opera Company’s final première of the winter 2012 season was Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de Loin or Love from Afar, which ran from February 2-22, 2012 at the Richard Bradshaw Theatre, the centre of the COC’s home in Toronto. It is a co-production of The Canadian Opera Company, English National Opera and Vlaamse Opera. Cirque du Soleil acrobats are accompanying each character in this production. The opera took 8 years to compose. It was first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, and since then has found its way into the world and it is described in the media as the “most-produced” opera of this century. Fifty-nine-year old Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, a classmate of Esa Pekka Salonen, explains the stages of shaping up her most successful work. She looked for a story and then the story found her. It was only a few lines of poetry by the French poet Jacques Roubaud. It was an actual biography of Jaufré Rudel. In the 12th century, Rudel, a French troubadour, hears of a noblewoman Clémence living in remote Tripoli, (the same Tripoli of the late Libyan colonel, Moammar El Ghadafi; his daughter is looking for his death certificate in The Hague). The troubadour, what else, idealizes the countess Clémence in his sonnets and songs. He longs to connect with her. A pilgrim carries messages between the two of them, and he finally sets sail to meet the love of his life. During the sea voyage Rudel is tormented by doubt about how he can fall in love with someone he does not know. Upon arrival he meets Countess Clémence, only to die in her arms. This story resonates between myth and fairy tale. The process of “dressing” this story with sounds and voices took Saariaho 8 years to complete and she describes it in her own words:

“Every personality has its own music-the music of Jaufré Rudel uses parallel fifths, and the interval of the fifth is very present…this has to do, of course, with mediaeval Western music. The music of Clémence is closest to my own musical language-I use a lot of parallel orchestration, octaves, etc., which reminds us a bit of Oriental music. I wanted to create the contrasts on many levels because this opera is about different feelings, different thoughts, different atmospheres…  In this opera, I’m using electronics in such a way that they are extensions of the orchestration. I have chosen certain concrete sound material which I pass through filters tuned to the same harmony that the orchestra is playing so that it really blends with the orchestration. Some of the sounds I chose for Jaufre’s material are, for example, the sea-sound, the wind-natural noises-the white noise of nature. For Clémence, I had birds, a woman’s voice whispering some of the texts in an Occidental language, which is the language of Jaufré… Jaufré Rudel is an artist, a creator, but also a prince. He has lived a vain, somewhat superficial life and has enjoyed a certain success but comes to a point where he needs to have something more spiritual, more profound. He hears about this countess who is so beautiful and so pure and who becomes the perfect object of his love… Then there is Clémence, born in France and brought to Tripoli. She feels that this is not her country and although she cannot really remember her life in France, she is nostalgic for it. When she hears that there is somebody thinking of her, singing of her, it’s exactly what she needs to dream about life the way she would like it to be. She falls in love with the idea and with the music-since what does she know about this man? Nothing at all.”

The mysterious character is a Pilgrim. The voice anticipated between baritone and soprano allows flexibility in choosing male or female. Peter Selars, who first staged this opera for the Salzburg festival in 2000, plays with the ambiguity of Pilgrim’s gender. When meeting with Jaufré it is a woman dressed as a man, and when with Clémence the Pilgrim is a man dressed as woman. Possible interpretations of the Pilgrim as animus/anima, or as a reconciling neutral force necessary in any manifestation.  This score and story has been the inspiration for eight stagings within the first decade since this opera took on a life of its own.  For the director and choreographer Daniel Finzi Pasca this was the first opera assignment.

Trained as a gymnast, having his own love-from-afar experience when he fled to India to soothe his aching heart, and serving a prison term for refusing military service, Daniel Finzi Pasca qualifies as a creative reader of this subtle and seemingly simple plot. With his experience as a director and choreographer of a closing Olympic ceremony and the Cirque du Soleil’s performance, the end result is a new storytelling language which speaks through the bodies of acrobats and the souls of musicians and singers. The enchantment is completed with rich lighting, a play of shadows, and opulent costumes. His vision of Love from Afar brings in the images of fantasy, outer and inner realities, into one life in which parallel worlds exist in harmony.

Acrobats Antoine Marc, Sandrine Merette and Ted Sikstrom in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012.Photo: Chris Hutcheson

The end result is the opera as a piece of conceptual art, where each artistic language competes and complements in telling the story through singing, instrumental music, experimental sounds, colour, fabric and fantasy visions in which each character: Jaufré, Clemence and The Pilgrim, is accompanied by 3 acrobats. The complexity and richness of the music invites a contemplative state in which this production as previous ones is merely one of many possible readings.