The Canadian Opera Company unveiled a spectacularly beautiful new co-production of L’amour de loin (Love from Afar), a 12-year-old opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf on Thursday night at the Four Seasons Centre.
There were treats for the eyes from the beginning to the end. The three-person singing cast is as spectacular as the staging. And the COC Orchestra was at its best under music director Johannes Debus.
But for all the great efforts, this two-hour, five-act voyage through an atonal, doomed long-distance love affair between a medieval troubadour and a Middle Eastern captive comes in a few high notes shy of a satisfying night at the opera.
There are two reasons for this: Saariaho’s orchestral score is richly textured, but repetitive. The singing relies on short melodic patterns that only achieve any sort of independent momentum in moments of paticularly effusive emotion, which don’t coalesce until the final act.
The result is a musical wash with an effect similar to highway hypnosis.
Daniele Finzi Pasca’s new production for the COC, shared with English National Opera and Vlaamse Opera in Belgium, tries to counterbalance the musical monotony with every imaginable bit of business that can be set up on a modern stage — from Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, shadow puppetry and ever-mobile sets to highly imaginative play with fabrics, scrims, lighting, mirrors and video.
At times, this production looks like a high-end showcase of modern opera theatre mechanics, eclipsing the music and text.
That said, the three singers are a treat: Toronto baritone Russell Braun and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó are at their vocal best as troubadour-prince Jaufré Rudel and the Pilgrim who acts as matchmaker between the lovelorn man and distant captive Clémence, strongly portrayed by Canadian-American soprano Erin Wall.
Jaufré and Clémence find out about each other from the Pilgrim. Both fall in love with the idea of having a distant admirer. Jaufré decides to cross the Mediterranean to Tripoli to find his distant beloved, only to succumb to an undisclosed illness as soon as he arrives at his destination.
Maalouf’s French libretto has a soft, once-upon-a-time quality that has great poetic impact, but doesn’t help make a strong human connection with the characters on stage. Saariaho’s severe music further widens the distance.
One has to sit back and enjoy the rich parade of colours, shapes and beautiful costumes. But a visit to the opera house should, ideally, come with more of a visceral impact than a visit to a fine art gallery.
Performances continue at the Four Seasons Centre to Feb. 22. For all the details, click here.