Krisztina Szabó as the Pilgrim (downstage left), Erin Wall as Clémence and Russell Braun as Jaufré (both centre stage). Photo: Michael Cooper
Confirming Its Greatness
COC proves its stature with a difficult work
by Axel Van Chee
The much anticipated first opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho L’Amour de loin has given the COC something to boast about: it has an exceptional cast of singers (all Canadians), it is directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca of Cirque du Soleil fame, and has an excellent team of designers. L’Amour is like a desert mirage that manages to elude Canada since its première in 2000 having been around the world, and like a desert mirage, it is shimmering, sensual, ephemeral, insubstantial, and ultimately like the title suggests, can only be loved, from afar.
Their singing is nuanced, mellifluous, and at times, transporting.
There are many fantastic things about this production, take the singing for a start. Russell Braun (Jaufré), Erin Wall (Clémence) and Krisztina Szabò (the Pilgrim) have the unenviable task of learning these three fiendishly difficult roles and execute them gloriously. Their singing is nuanced, mellifluous, and at times, transporting. They also act with dramatic intentions, and weave into one another beautifully.
The moving panes and projection sets are grandiose and sensitively detailed, together with the lights, frame elegant spaces on stage. The costumes are bewitching in their jewel tones and accents, conveying the luxurious palace life in faraway lands. The acrobats who doubled up as doppelgangers of the three main characters dance through the stage and in the air, using fabric as prop, create a sea of billowing silk of many hues, flying in all directions.
The story is also a promising one: two people falling in love without having met one another - the ultimate story of unrequited love (or like what my friend suggested during the intermission that it is a commentary on Internet dating).
The music is perhaps one of the most exotic of the modern operas...
The problem, oddly enough, is Saariaho’s visceral, dream-like, arpeggiating score under the capable hand of Maestro Johannes Debus. The music is perhaps one of the most exotic of the modern operas where she carefully fuses many cultural traditions, with profusions of suspensions, filled with tremolos and glissandos in both the orchestral and the vocal writing to evoke the Northern African colours reminiscent of French impression Orientalism. Her use of ambient and electronic sound is subversively articulated, complete with African drums. Her choral music in the beginning of Act Four (sung and spoken simultaneously) is particularly stunning. But her soundscape seldom varies, making the opera almost like a static soundtrack, with words, for two hours. Together with beautiful lyrical singing, a story of love going nowhere, yards and yards of undulating fabric to the hypnotic movements of dancers, there is the danger of inducing sleep. Half of the people sitting in my row were happily dozing off in their own fantasy land by the intermission.
There is no denying however, that this production at COC is striking, with exquisite singing and compelling theatrics, and yes, a very original score. And one must give credit to the company, for its courage in broadening the horizons of Toronto, for its continual support for the progress of the operatic arts, and for proving once again that it is indeed one of the leading opera companies in North America.