New York City’s Metropolitan Opera is the oldest and one of the most respected organizations of music drama in the nation, as well as the country’s largest classical music institution. Founded in the 1880’s, it can trace its history back to the Gilded Age of America, when its host city was dominated by men with names like Morgan, Carnegie and Rockefeller, whose legacies live on in the City’s famous landmarks. In its modern-day location positioned as part of Lincoln Center, the Met sits just across the street from Juilliard, and its impressive arched façade takes one’s breath away. Inside the building the gold and glittering surfaces dazzle the eyes, while the opulent red carpets muffle your footsteps. The chandeliers, which rise to the plane of eye-level as you ascend to the upper balconies, look like mechanical sunbursts. To attend a performance in that building is an experience like no other, and so when I stepped off the plane at Laguardia at the beginning of Winter Break, the Met wasn’t simply something I looked forward to seeing — it was my entire reason for coming.
Earlier this academic year I glanced through the Met’s season when it was announced, expecting to find the usual, standard-fare Verdi, Puccini and Wagner — the classics, the tried-and-true and what have you. And I certainly did find them, as anticipated, and all of those composers are excellent at what they do and masters of the form, but honestly, they just don’t particularly interest me. Mostly this has to do with the fact that my tastes tend to be more modern, or else be even older than those three. But something else in the season was entirely unexpected and electrifying. During the month of December, the Met would be performing “L’amour de loin,” an opera composed about 16 years ago by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who — to me at least — is one of the most interesting compositional voices active today.
Immediately after learning that “L’amour” was going to be performed, I set about trying to find a way to see it. I asked a few of my New York friends if I could stay with them around the holidays. I spoke with my parents about arranging transportation to the City. Over the course of the next few months, the trip began to take shape — the germ of my suggestion to my parents ended up blooming into a full-fledged family vacation to the City.
Saariaho herself is what might be termed a post-spectralist composer. Spectralism, a movement originating the the second half of the last century, focuses on the study of the physical properties of sound itself — its overtones, timbre, etc. — and the subsequent construction of music based on these properties. Some composers who are associated with this vein include the Frenchman Géard Grisey and the Brit Julian Anderson. Saariaho, on the other hand, takes heavy influence from spectralism — in terms of her sound-world — but composes music that is perhaps more Romantic in spirit, and more liberated. She takes the sonorities of spectralism and forms them into colorful, lower-case impressionistic images. Her great strength lies in her deft control over all of the timbral elements within her narrative, and the rich, large-scale palette of “L’amour de loin” allowed her to display this to the full.
“L’amour” has a simple plot, and, like an extremely high number of other operas, it’s a love story. The events of the drama follow Jaufré, a French nobleman and troubadore in the 12th-century who, through words and the image woven by a travelling pilgrim, falls in love with the countess of Tripoli, Clémence, from across the Mediterranean Sea. With the pilgrim as an interloper, and two begin a sort of extremely long-distance relationship, culminating in Jaufré crossing the Sea to meet the countess, only to die in her arms.
In the Met’s production — the first time they’ve produced an opera by a female composer in over a century, and only the second time ever at that — the stage is intersected by dozens of strings of vibrant, luminous color, which throughout the production move and imitate the Mediterranean Sea. Visually, in this way the production was magnificent. Through the beautiful French-language libretto, themes of idealized love, piety, devotion and obsession are all explored. Arias and duets are interwoven in a captivating manner. The music throughout remains as a sort of haunted dream-scape, moving by slight adjustment through the range of nebulous moods that populate the opera.
After the curtain fall, one thing in particular lingered in my mind: Namely, I contemplated the fact that a plot of such pure simplicity can nonetheless produce an engaging work of art. Much of this interest was surely generated through the arresting image on the stage, and the music propelled and commented upon the story in intriguing ways, but neither of these seem to fully explain the reason why the whole thing works.
In the end, the only explanation I can propose is simply that we, as a species, are endlessly fascinated with the concept of the unattainable — a figure which is at the core of this opera. Each of us engages in idealistic fantasizing about that which we realistically acknowledge we can never attain, whether it’s a faraway love, a meaningful contribution to the world or anything else. Perhaps, because of our own obsessions, watching a tale of idealistic devotion play out onstage is a form of cathartic giving-over, a vicarious consummation of our desires. Or perhaps its presence onstage is a type of validation, a sort of acknowledgement that unattainable desire is a universal. Whatever it is, its place at the center of our art is key to an understanding of who we are.