A compelling impression of untethered bodies floating across vast distances…
L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by Susanna Mälkki, 2016.
From The Hudson Review:
The same year that the United States nominated its first female major-party presidential candidate, the Metropolitan Opera presented, for the first time in over a century, an opera composed by a woman: Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. The last opera composed by a woman performed at the Met was British composer Ethel Smyth’s one-act opera, Der Wald. Dismissed at its 1903 performance by the New York Times as “a disappointing novelty,” the next 113 years of Met productions would be of the works by men. The presence of women at the Met was long in coming in other domains as well: by 1960 there were only two women instrumentalists in the Met orchestra, a violinist and the second harpist. The enormous gender asymmetry made for some interesting professional challenges for these women: the harpist’s solution to the absence of a female dressing room for orchestra musicians was to change into concert attire inside her harp case!
A whirlwind of publicity preceded the Met’s production of L’Amour de Loin. Conducted by Susanna Mälkki, the fourth female conductor to lead a production with the Metropolitan Opera and first woman to conduct at La Scala in 2011, the production was a high-profile affirmation of the voices of dozens of women composers, performers, and conductors chiseling cracks in the lofty ceilings of institutions like the Met. Although Saariaho herself has understandably sought to avoid the image of a “female” composer and a gendered reception of her music, the opera was received by the New York City concert-going community and the press as a “milestone” event for women in the arts.
The Met’s decision to stage L’Amour de Loin was anything but a daring gamble, however. Before its production at the Met, L’Amour de Loin had already enjoyed ten productions on three continents since its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. Kaija Saariaho herself is arguably one of the most internationally renowned composers of her generation. Born in Finland in 1952, Saariaho studied with Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy before study and research at Freiburg and at Paris at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). Known for her luxurious textures and harmonies, Saariaho’s training in acoustics and spectral analysis inspires her signature blend of new technology with writing for traditional Western instruments and her systematic approach to building harmonic structures.
Lepage’s production, like Saariaho’s music, was stark. Besides the LED lights, the only other set elements were the boat of the Pilgrim and a raised contraption upon which Jaufré and Clémence stood in alternation. The contraption resembled a barge or pier when flat, but which could swivel and transform into a flight of stairs, thus creating an illusion of cinematic changes of perspective. The stage production did at times create a compelling impression of untethered bodies floating across vast distances.