L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar) is the first opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho with a libretto by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. It is a wonderfully evocative and impressionistic work that conjures up the romantic seascapes of the imagination. A seductive opera that reels you into its magical dream world and envelops you in its fantastical story.
A lot of modern opera can be quite dissonant and percussive and while L’Amour de Loin doesn’t totally eschew the dissonant tendency in a lot of contemporary stage composition it’s real inspiration is the beautifully flowing and mesmerising polyphony of medieval choral music.
It tells the story of Jaufré, Prince of Blaye, who becomes infatuated with a woman of the East who only exists in his imagination. A pilgrim returning from the Levant tells Jaufré that such woman actually exists, Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. On retuning to the East, the Pilgrim then tells Clémence about Jaufré, a French troubadour and how he, having only imagined her, has fallen madly in love with her.
Jaufré decides he must meet Clémence and sets sail for the East and although Clémence had been quite annoyed by the thoughts of this distant admirer, as Jaufré’s ship draws ever closer she starts longing to meet her mysterious distant lover.
Unknown to Clémence, Jaufré is getting ever more ill during his voyage, he is consumed by regrets that maybe he has done the wrong thing and this is folly. Upon his ships arrival in Tripoli he is dying. When the ship docks, Clémence rushes to meet this man who adored her from afar and who she now is totally in love with also.
Dying in her arms Jaufré and Clémence declare their love for each other. Clémence curses Heaven and with remorse and loss enters a convent. The Opera ends with Clémence on her knees deep in prayer, but who is she praying to…
This is a stunningly beautiful piece of contemporary musical theatre that is firmly in the tradition of a classical operatic style and the production staged by English National Opera strongly reminds me of the work of the wonderful English film director Peter Greenaway, particularly his ‘Prosperos Books’. A vivid yet dreamlike world that magically blends movement with dialogue.
For the Bergen International Festival in 2008 Michael Elmgreen and Ignar Dragset created an animated version of the opera which can bring a work like this to a whole new audience and is strangely captivating despite its very limited colour palate.