I've loved the music of Kaija Saariaho for several years. Her music has always sounded Debussy-esque, except more lush and sensual. She's one of those living composers who I expect would speak to those uninitiated in contemporary music. I played her Ballade for solo piano on one of my doctoral recitals and I loved how she created this lushness with intricate textures and requiring more than a little subtlety with the damper pedal.
Her opera L’Amour de Loin comes from the year 2000, and has the distinction, as unfortunate as it may be, of being the first opera by a woman produced by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in over 100 years. I got to watch that production through the Met on Demand service, but I've attached a recording to this post in lieu of a production.
The story is set in the 12th century, which seems appropriate to the musical style that we hear throughout. There's something archaic, gothic actually, about Saariaho’s music that seems so appropriate for that setting. I've read the synopsis before starting to watch that Met production, but I otherwise know nothing of this opera or its music. I followed along with a vocal reduction and English subtitles.
Immediately the vocal score seems almost unecessary. Saariaho's orchestrations are so isntricate, and texture so refined, that so much detail will naturally be missing. Given all that's left out, I'd still rather not be the rehearsal pianist! For my purposes, the piano reduction of the orchestra plays a helpful role. I'd like to have some sense of how she translates her sound pallette-which keep in mind, often makes use of live electronic manipulation of and in conjunction with acoustic instruments-to operatic form.
One criticism of contemporary music is that listeners have trouble knowing what to listen for. When you're not well versed in a musical language, it's hard for anything to stick in your head. Even I'm not going to be able to whistle Saariaho's melodies after one or two listens! Throughout the first couple “tableaux”, I felt like the relationship of the orchestra and voices was very consistent. So even if a musical relationship doesn't stick in someone's ear, this consistency allows the audience to focus on the words.
Here's an example: As I listened to the second tableaux, with the pilgrim’s first aria, I recognized the words “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty” from the main character, Jaufre, who sang the same words earlier. I jumped back in the score and it turns out that the melody is the same for both characters. I don't know that I would have made that musical connection on melody alone. The orchestra is different in both circumstances, which shows the versatility of her melodic material. But this clarity in which the words are set makes that connection obvious.
This same text comes back in Act 2, this time the pilgrim singing to Clemence. The melody is almost the same, same rhythm but slight variations in the intervallic content. But when Jaufre and the pilgrim each sing this in Act 1, the temporal action is very close together. Here, some time has passed, since the Pilgrim has travelled “afar” between these two presumably lovers-to-be. So the variations in the melody help illustrate this passage of time. The Pilgrim remembers the words used before but the melody is a little fuzzy. Again, these are all things I notice only because of the score, but it's a great example of a composer subtly tying the dramatic elements to the musical.
This is a noteworthy opera given that there are only 3 roles, plus an all tenor/bass and all soprano/alto choruses. So far the accuracy of all singers is extraordinary. The counting itself is actually quite straightforward, but the regularity if the heat is not obvious from the orchestra, yet the ensemble is very rhythmically coordinated from all singers and the orchestra. Of course this is memorized from all the singers!
Nowhere is the singer's artistry and accuracy more apparent than in The Pilgrim's aria early in the second tableaux of act 2 (see track 8 in this recording), where she sings Jaufre's love song to Clemence (later, the Pilgrim tells him that he “I mumbled them more or less", which is interesting regarding my 'passage of time' comment above'). Tamara Mumford sings The Pilgrim with such passion, and organic lyricism that one need not realize that the melodic line or it's rhythm is at all difficult. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Saariaho harmonizes and orchestrates this chanson hauntingly, recalling medieval harmony in parallel fourths and a lack of leading tone motion, but also not without some lush dissonances. Throughout, I find Mumford's performance to be the most enthralling.
Overall, I loved getting to know this opera, even though I listened to only about half of it actively. Saariaho created a beautiful score and she finds this nice balance between a consistent harmonic voice in her music while still adapting the vocal style and orchestral accompaniment to the drama at hand. This is something that made Mozart's operas so great. With such abstract music it is sometimes hard to get a concrete understanding what is going on only from listening. But, for example, in Act 5, as Jafre dies, all parts, chorus, soloist and orchestra, the pitch is always descending and then sitting low. A general understanding of the plot will indicate the word painting quite easily.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act