Since its premiere at the 2000 Saltzburg Festival, Kaija Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de loin, or Love from afar, has enjoyed great acclaim. This new production for ENO by ‘new-wave circus director’ Daniele Finzi Pasca (of Cirque du Soleil fame) gives the work its long-overdue UK stage debut.
Action or rather inaction revolves around a twelfth-century French troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, and the object of his affection, Clémence the Countess of Tripoli. Though they have never met, their love for each other is sown and nurtured by a Pilgrim who travels between the two. It is a tale of imagined and ideal love that evokes Persian legends like Layla and Majnun or Khosrow and Shirin, and it’s a powerful and poetic conceit intensified by Amin Maalouf’s libretto but the dramatic inertia presents problems for any director.
There is, no question, much to admire about Finzi Pasca’s approach, and he has responded thoughtfully to the challenges and virtues of the piece. In the absence of conventional drama, emotions are meditated upon and magnified by two acrobats per character, and the weightless, at times vertiginous, qualities within Saariaho’s score are reflected in the flying acrobats and minimalist set design. Throughout there is a sense of subtle reverberation, it’s just that the soundscape is so delicately textured that the visuals threaten to desensitise, and we are quickly lulled into a dreamlike, semi-comatose trance.
It’s a pleasant enough trance more of a trip, really with woosy, lava-lamp colours and acres of wafted parachute silk. Jean Rabasse’s sets provide a backdrop for filigree partitions, which are systematically lowered and raised, and high-tech video projections. Computer graphics such as these always tread a fine line between meaningful commentary and a jazzed-up screensaver, and there were times when Act IV opens to crazy cosmic geometry or when the sea-swell backdrop is frosted neon pink when it veers towards the latter.
Special effects aside, the vocal cast were impressive. Joan Rodgers sang Clémence with ardour and conviction, and Faith Sherman’s Pilgrim (a ringer for Gandalf), blessed with some of the most beautiful passages, was superb, her carefully-placed vibrato echoing the oriental melismas of the vocal line. Meanwhile, Roderick Williams’ clear and focussed baritone brought some muscularity to the part of Jaufré Rudel. Edward Gardner worked hard to maintain momentum in the pit, and the orchestra ploughed the richness of the score, but ultimately failed to engage. Like the story itself, there is great charm and beauty in this production but it doesn’t quite deliver its promise.