COC's "Love from Afar": The joys and challenges of contemporary opera!

This past weekend, a friend and I attended the other current offering at Canadian Opera Company; Kaija Saariaho’s Love from Afar, based on the 12th century poetic text La Vida breve by Jaufre Rudel, with modern libretto by Amin Maalouf, and stage direction by Daniele Finzi Pasca.  As the “Hollywood-ization”–or in this case the “Cirque du Soleil-ization”–of opera continues, there is much to herald and much to ponder regarding its continuing challenges.

First off, this opera–as fashioned from its original source–clings to a very simple and thin storyline:  Troubadour Jaufre Rudel, bored with his life of excess in France, dreams of the perfect love.  Such love (in the form of the character Clemence) is to be found in far off Tripoli thanks to critical information provided by a frequenting Pilgrim.  The two are made aware of one another, and the longing begins.  The troubadour travels to Tripoli, and en-route becomes shattered by anxiety like an eggshell underfoot; remaining intact, but by only the thinnest of membranes.  He becomes ill, and although the couple never consummate their love physically, they do so spiritually before he expires, leaving Clemence to end the opera in a sort of Isolde-esque state of being.

To say that COC has provided this opera with a first rate production would be the understatement of the second decade of this new millennium.  On all fronts, this was a stunner: incredible lighting, fantastic costumes, the most inventive of high-tech digital projections, acrobats, dancers, flying silk, 30 hand held mirrors (which I mistook for a bunch of iPads on-stage…well, ‘who knows’ these days???!!!), principal artists in triplicate (2 additional mimes for each character), and a vocal cast that represented the most superb singing that one could hope for!  So what’s the problem???  I am not really sure, to be quite honest!!!

It struck me that such an unaffected storyline, minimal character development (a characteristic of the work itself, not the talent), even less dramatic action, and the somewhat monotonous vocal music would probably need such over-the-top accoutrements to keep it interesting.  But too often, my focus began to wander from the singers themselves in an attempt to unearth the meaning behind the twirling silk, acrobatic back-flips, the very strange presence of a young ‘American Gothic’ couple throughout the production, and everything that is now textbook Cirque du Soleil (in the sense that we understand it as part of the popular lexicon).  At the very same time, however, I was totally mesmerized by a moment of silence where, with backs to the audience, the characters of Rudel and The Pilgrim look out over the expanse of open seas (courtesy of an incredible visual projection over stage scrim) with the brightest of moons in the far distance; as well as their journey through time and space as they walked across a geometric rendering of the galaxy (again, courtesy of suspended aerial artists that were hung on their sides as they “walked”; similar to Loge and Wotan’s descent into Nibelheim in the Met’s new Rheingold).

Ultimately, all I can say with absolute certainty is that the whole of this overall production was certainly greater than the sum of its individual parts.  Much needs to be said about Johannes Debus’ conducting of the incredibly interesting and difficult orchestration, as well as kudos to the musicians themselves who executed it.  An interesting use of a mostly offstage chorus led us to believe that a larger cosmic force was observing all of the worldly action, as they regularly commented on it.  Ultimately, however, opera is about the singers; and COC provided three of the finest: Baritone, Russel Braun (Jaufre Rudel);  Soprano, Erin Wall (Clemence); and Mezzo-Soprano, Krisztina Szabo (a rather ‘Kundry-like’ Pilgrim).  All were nearly flawless in delivering moments of great nuance when provided to them compositionally; and oddly enough, Ms. Szabo was equally compelling when she was simply observing the interactions between the characters of Rudel and Clemence…providing, in a sense, the ‘apex’ of triangulation as the opera’s main protagonist.

Finally, we have seen these big budget, high risk/high reward productions regularly on the opera stage these days:  The Metropolitan Opera’s recent Damnation of Faust and current Ring Cycle; Dallas Opera’s Moby Dick; everything Bregenz Festival, and of course many, many others throughout the world.  Modern audiences seem to expect more and more in the area of stage presentation, and are often left gasping as they leave the opera house; while time-honored opera goers scratch their heads and wonder why??

That’s the best post-performance show in town; and you gotta love it!!!