Sunday 12 July 2009

Review of L'Amour de loin

Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour du loin received its UK premiere at a concert at the Barbican, and the ENO bravely decided to give the work its first UK staging. The work was directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, who has previously directed for Cirque du Soleil. We saw the final performance on Saturday 11th July.

The piece has only 3 solo roles, Clemence (Joan Rogers), Jaufre (Roderick Williams) and Faith Sherman (The Pilgrim). In the opera Clemence lives in Tripoli and Jaufre, a troubador, lives in France. The Pilgrim acts as a go between and the opera ends with Jaufre journeying to Tripoli, falls ill on the journey and dies in Clemence's arms. There is over 2 hours of music, so the opera is quite static and more like an oratorio.

The decision to use Pasca as director seems to have been motivated by a desire to bring in someone who could articulate this rather intractably static piece. Pasca brought magic and flair to the proceedings and gave us a series of ravishing stage pictures. He doubled each of the singers with 2 dancers and each scene was preceded by a shadow theatre performance whose performers almost became part of the main action, in a rather annoying way.

The Coliseum does not have the most sophisticated stage machinery, but using light, swathes of fabric and flying people Pasca created magic. A visual interpretation of the music. The problem with this was that it almost became a dance piece. Though all three singers are accomplished stage actors, Pasca rather under used them. The moments when they were integrated into the action, such as when Williams's Jaufre danced off the stage, made it clear what the staging could have been. But too often Williams and Rogers were danced around, surrounded by loveliness, but never quite participated. I began to wonder whether Pasca had ever directed singers before, whether he trusted them.

That said, the musical performance was impressive. Rogers floated her long lines beautifully and emoted stunningly. Williams was similarly impressive and engaging as Jaufre. Sherman, dressed in the strangest way almost like an alien. The programme referred to the role as being androgynous but in fact the result just looked wierd. Sherman was good in the role. She is a talented young singer based in Houston, but as often recently in ENO productions you do wonder whether they couldn't have cast the role closer to home.

The chorus was off stage for all but the end and I think the staging would have been stronger if they had been on stage, able to interact with the other performancers.

Saariaho's music has lovely textures and transparencies, which were well brought out by Edward Gardner and the ENO orchestra. But I did not find the same interest in the vocal lines. Granted they are melodic and singable, but ultimately they seemed rather unmemorable. Taking the music and the staging separately, I am not sure whether they would have held my attention, but combined the result was a form a magic.

I have not heard Saariaho's work in the original French, but having heard it in English I would like to. I felt that I would like to do so, perhaps the vocal lines would seem more melodic, more liquid. Richard Stokes's translation was serviceable, but you could not help feeling that the French would work better.

The evening was a magical and impressive triumph for ENO. But I was still left with niggling doubts.

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