Author’s note: I have been distracted from writing blog posts while recovering from knee replacement surgery, but I am now ready to resume, and readers should see new posts more regularly.
Something happened on the Metropolitan Opera Stage on Thursday night that has never happened before: an opera by a woman composer was performed and was conducted by a woman conductor. What are the odds of that happening? Well, consider that Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is only the second female composer to have a work performed by the Met; the first was Ethel Wald’s Der Wald in 1904. Then consider that conductor Susanna Malkki, also from Finland, is one of only four female conductors to have held the baton at the Met in its entire history. Performances run through December 29 at the Met. However, if you cannot make it to New York City, you can see the live performance in theaters across the country on Saturday, December 10.
But is it a good opera? The story of L’Amour, libretto by Amin Maalouf, is a medieval tale about troubadour Jaufre Rudel who longs for a woman worthy of his true love. He learns of such a woman, Clemence, the Countess of Tripoli, from a pilgrim. The pilgrim is then enlisted to carry messages back and forth between the lovers across the sea, until finally Jaufre makes the journey to meet Clemence. During their exchanges the lovers must deal with coming to terms with their real and idealized selves. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini gives the opening night performance a strongly positive review: Ms. Saariaho’s music, the libretto by Mr. Maalouf, the three cast members, and conducting by Ms. Malkki all draw praise. Heidi Waleson writing in the Wall Street Journal calls it one of the most important operas of our era. L’Amour de Loin premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 and had its US premiere by the Sante Fe Opera in 2002.
There seems one point of controversy. The Met production staging by Robert LePage draws praise for its creativity and has even been called exciting, especially the ability of the simulated sea to reflect the moods of the characters, but it has also drawn criticism expressing a view that it doesn’t wear well over the course of the entire opera. Mr. Lepage considers the sea to be the fourth main character of the opera. To simulate a shimmering sea between the lovers on the stage Mr. Lepage uses strings of small LED lights, totaling 28,000 in number. He also has the heads of chorus members popping up between the waves at certain points. I am especially curious to see how well these effects come across in cinema showings.
The cast is stellar and worth hearing just on the merits of their voices and craftsmanship. Eric Owens, who plays Jaufre, is now an established international opera star. Susanna Phillips, with voice of pure honey and a smile that can open just about any heart has rapidly become one of my favorite sopranos. I am not familiar with mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford, who plays the androgynous pilgrim, but she elicited praise from the professional reviewers.
Want to see an important opera and experience Met history at the same time? Then mark your calendars and do not delay in reserving your tickets for the December 10 showing live in HD in cinemas. Find the theaters where it is being shown near you using this link.