Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about the premiere of yet another new opera. Much of the action is in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago and Europe, of course, but signs of vitality are springing up even in places like Fort Worth and Long Beach. After decades of relentlessly retro programming, Oregon too shows recent signs of operatic revitalization: Christopher Corbell’s Cult of Orpheus, which this month revived the Portland composer’s original 2015 opera Viva’s Holiday and has a new opera based on Antigone coming next year; Opera Theater Oregon, which co-produced Viva and is bringing Eugene composer Justin Ralls’s Two Yosemites to Portland in June; Eugene Opera’s recent productions of operas by living composers; and even normally stodgy Portland Opera’s upcoming David Lang one-acts.
Along with Corbell’s re-Viva, this fall has brought two more contemporary operas to Portland, one internationally renowned, created by a pair of Parisian immigrants, and showing in a few Oregon movie theaters this Wednesday, December 21, the other homegrown. Both seem timely given today’s social concerts, showing the consequences of our perennial tendency to view others through the distorted lenses of our own desires — or fears.
None of this century’s new operas have been more rapturously received by critics than Finnish-French composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), which debuted at the Salzburg Festival at the turn of the century, followed by other European and North American productions including Santa Fe Opera. When it finally made it to New York’s Metropolitan Opera this month, Love from Afar became only the company’s second-ever production of an opera by a female composer, and the first since 1903. This month, the Met’s Live in HD program broadcast it to theaters around the country, including several in Oregon, and it airs for the final time December 21.
The creators both know what it’s like to live at a distance from a place you love. A standout among the accomplished contemporary coterie of Finnish composers that includes Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, Saariaho has long lived in Paris, as has librettist Amin Maalouf, the Beirut-born, award-winning historical novelist (The Rock of Tanios) and nonfiction writer (The Crusades through Arab Eyes). Extrapolating from the few facts known about a 12th century Acquitainian prince and troubadour, troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, the expatriate pair has created an anti-romantic tragedy about the danger of idealizing the object of your affection, whether person or place.
The opera opens with two long scenes, one from each lover, in which they in turn conjure imaginary incarnations of their dream lovers. Clad in fiery crimson and gold, the ardent poet and composer (two professions whose practitioners inhabit the world of imagination) Jaufré tells a Pilgrim about a woman of surpassing beauty that he’s imagined. When the Pilgrim reports that he’s seen such a figure across the Mediterranean in what’s now Lebanon, Jaufré replies that he doesn’t even want to know her name — he prefers his imagined, idealized version, who inspires him to compose songs.
In the second act, his love interest, Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, is also blue — literally, thanks to the lighting on her her silvery-scaled mermaid outfit. When the Pilgrim tells her about her French idealizer, who happens to hail from her childhood home, it makes her nostalgically yearn for that ideal place and time — a different if no less powerful and distorted idealization than the one she feels toward her own idealizer. Like Jaufré, Clémence fears the disappointment of meeting her lover, or the land of her childhood, in the flesh. She prefers to remember, and be adored, safely from afar. “I prefer dreaming,” she sings, “for in dreams you are mine.”
The androgynous Pilgrim acts as intermediary, both in voice range (Tamara Mumford’s alto/mezzo soprano lies between Eric Owens’s baritone and Susanna Phillips’s soprano) and costume (divided between red and blue patches), persuading a tremulous Jaufré to actually journey to meet Clémence. During the journey, the first time sea voyager takes ill — mal de mer or mal d’amour, seasickness or lovesickness? The actual cause: anxiety that reality will never match his dream. Jaufré sings that he’d rather go happily to heaven not having seen her than risk the reality of inevitable disappointment. “I was Adam, and distance was my earthly paradise,” he wails. “Why did I have to walk toward the tree?”
Even when the distant lovers finally meet, too briefly, in the fifth and final act, they sing their love songs in subjunctive voice, embellishing and abstracting their imagined impossible future together. Clémence’s song praises not Jaufré’s reality but ideal abstractions: “You are goodness and mercy.”
In a plot turn that should have been set up earlier, she angrily, then resignedly abjures the prospect of ever confronting the reality of actual human relationship, succumbing to another source of beautiful idealism trumping messy reality: religion. Like idealized love itself, L’Amour seems to suggest, faith that denies reality is at best sweet delusion.
What I’ve heard of Saariaho’s other music has leaned more toward atmosphere than drama, making it a surprising choice for opera. The only melodies I can really recall came during the intermission promos for the Met’s upcoming Mozart and Verdi productions. Yet, conducted by her fellow Finn femme Susanna Mälkki, the music suits this essentially undramatic tale, which is all about the characters’ inward-directed longings instead of action-oriented plot. By turns haunting, ominous, evocative (a hint at an “eastern” scale to summon Clemence’s Tripoli, some turbulence to accompany Jaufré’s nautical journey, etc.), the music, like the opera as a whole, reminds me most of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande in suggesting the characters’ psychological states rather than accompanying their almost non existent action. Shimmering like the ever-present onstage sea of lights, Saariaho’s silken score frequently achieves a troubled radiance, without ever approaching anything close to catchiness.
Famed Oregon designer Michael Curry’s striking stagecraft reflects the music’s abstract allure. The Met’s new production (only its second performance of an opera written by a woman in the company’s long history) shuns signs of period or place in favor of a minimal set fashioned primarily from photons. With little more than 28,000 individual LED’s summoning shimmering Mediterranean surfaces that separate the noble composer from the object of his courtly love, the stage is a clean, well lighted place. All the action happens nowhere but in the deluded characters’ heads, and hearts. The stage’s ever-present sea waves seem to shimmer and flow, but, like its characters’ self delusions, never really go anywhere. But if the protagonists’ refusal to change is their tragedy, Love from Afar nevertheless finds tragic beauty in their dreamy stasis.
“The Place Where You Started”
This fall also saw another stripped down — and even newer — 21st century opera that deals with a fraught new relationship between strangers from different lands, and is also about what happens when we fail to acknowledge the actuality of strangers rather than our own distorted image. Written during the incendiary 2016 political debate that helped vault anti-immigration Republicans to power, The Place Where You Started shows there’s more to the immigrants who do the work than any stereotype about occupation and ethnicity can encompass. Like Love from Afar, it reminds us what can happen when we make unwarranted assumptions about strangers — or even about the people closest to us. But if Saariaho’s opera explores the danger of unwarranted hope and desire, The Place Where You Started demonstrates the peril of unwarranted fear.
Portland State University’s world premiere — a rarity in college opera programs, and almost unknown in historically hidebound Oregon opera — opera is as up to the minute as L’amour is ancient and timeless, crackling with rapid-fire texting, laptop creations, video, and heated dinner-party arguments over immigration politics. This contemporary orientation is essential for a college opera program that develops tomorrow’s opera musicians. PSU’s acclaimed opera program has long been renowned for its professional-level productions (thanks to donor generosity) of standard operatic fare, but Place also marks the debut of not just a new opera, but also a new fall PSU series that opera studies director Christine Meadows aims to include new and non-standard operas that speak to today’s concerns, instead of endlessly fetishizing the 18th and 19th century Top Ten.
Created by composer and USC faculty member Mark Lanz Weiser and librettist Amy Punt specifically for this occasion and these able student performers, Place reflects its creative team’s Los Angeles home base. It includes a screenwriter frustrated by formulaic assignments; some superficial La-la-landers in her social/schmoozing circle; and a not entirely convincing Hollywood ending. Oh, and a Latino laborer, Macario (Darian Hutchinson), becomes her love from afar, bringing color (literally, thanks to astute costume, prop, and projection design) and authenticity into Meredith’s pale life — and harboring a secret that fuels the story. Just when you’re starting to wonder why you should care about these seemingly superficial LA stereotypes, what starts as a parlor drama flowers, along with their blossoming relationship, into a more expansive story involving contemporary social and political issues.
The story could use some refining, especially in the too-neat and hasty melodramatic wrap up, but Punt’s experience at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater and Warner Brothers shows in the characters’ realistic dialogue and sympathetic motivations, even when they do things that make us flinch. And its occasional sly humor scored frequent chuckles, especially in the early scenes.
Director Kristine McIntyre crisply squeezed maximum effect out of PSU’s Lincoln Studio Theater’s tiny stage and secured uniformly convincing performances, particularly by the two leads and Grace Skinner as Meredith’s noodging agent, Samantha, with Adam Ramaley and Saori Erickson effective in multiple roles.
Pianist/music director Chuck Dillard ably played Weiser’s mildly jazz-influenced score on a baby grand almost continuously throughout the hour and a half action. The music occasionally covered dialogue in the theater’s intimate but challenging (for music) acoustic. And though the singers’ voices had plenty of presence, I had some trouble making out the lines during duets between Meredith and her friend Brianne (who’s dealing with the career-detouring consequences of having children), as the intertwining melodies inhabited too similar a range; the team might consider moving some lines down into alto territory. The naturalistic recitative happily avoided pomposity and artificiality — a welcome and still too rare achievement even in contemporary opera.
Like L’Amour, this Place benefited from its minimalist surroundings. Complemented by Kayla Scrivner and Abigail Vaughan’s sharp, spare set and tech design, Mike Gamble’s spiffy projections transform the tiny stage into, successively, the exterior and Ikea-white interior of the suburban home Meredith shares with her obnoxious boyfriend Steve (well-played with believable clinginess by Alex Trull), LA skylines, unspecified Latin American streetscapes, a holding cell, and (sometimes hilariously) Meredith’s cheesy vampire romance screenplay-in-progress. As Meredith’s imagined scenarios change, so does the projected scenery. Other images appear: handwritten poetry that Punt wrote in Meredith’s voice, tropical flowers, book covers, seed packets.
Given opera’s inherent economic challenges, smart use of technology makes this show much more portable and produceable than most. In fact, PSU is taking it to China (!), for performances at universities. I’d love to see it develop further into fuller orchestration, both musical and dramatic, because we need bright, timely operas like this one shows promise of becoming. As these shows, Viva’s Holiday and many of the other new operas now flourishing around the country prove, as long as the art form engages timely and timeless human emotions, using words and music that speak to people in our own century, it will thrive.
Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD encore broadcast of Love from Afar (L’Amour de Loin) returns to select theaters December 21. Check the Met’s website for information on where you can see it.