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Kaija Saariaho, L'amour de loin

L'Amour de Loin

I've been on another opera jag lately, inspired once again by my love of the operas of Daniel Catán. This time I've been listening to Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Korngold's Die tote stadt, and Puccinni's La Boheme and trying to get deeper into Strauss' Salome amongst others. Last night I watched a DVD of Kaija Saariaho's 2000 opera, L'amour de loin, which has been praised as "the first great opera of the 21st century". The French libretto by Amin Maalouf is based on the poetry of the 12th century troubadour Jaufré Rude and concern's Jaufré's love for Clémence -- a woman he has never met and who lives across the sea from him (thus "l'amour de loin" -- "love from afar"). I'm still a relative neophyte when it comes to opera, so I can only go by what I know, and this opera reminded me frequently of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, both musically and in the spare story about painfully idealized love and gloomy uncertainty.

The music is far less romantic than Catán, but it does share some similarities with Catán's first opera, Rappaccini's Daughter, which is also indebted to Debussy. I've been reading about Saariaho this morning, and she's quite an interesting figure. The Wikipedia article says she was influenced by a movement I had never heard of called "spectral music," which Wikipedia describes as "a musical practice where compositional decisions are often informed by sonographic representations and mathematical analysis of sound spectra. ... Proto-spectral composers include Claude Debussy, Edgard Varèse, Giacinto Scelsi, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Theoretical predecessors include some of the composers mentioned and Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, and Paul Hindemith." The result is haunting and ethereal. Spectral is a good word for it.

Saariaho has composed two more operas since this one, and she's written quite a lot of other music as well, including string quartets and other chamber music. I'm very curious about her now and an eyeing some of her other recordings. The Guardian has a good overview: 'The brilliance of her works that fuse electronics with instruments is the way they melt the divisions between both worlds. The electronics become a halo around the instruments, amplifying their sonic palette yet indivisible from them. Your ears are seamlessly taken into another realm, a place that's both ethereal in its sheer, rarefied beauty yet grounded in the real world of instruments and voices.'

And so my musical education continues. Opera DVDs that I have on hand include John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer and Aulis Sallinen's The Palace. (Sallinen is another Finn, and Saariaho does remind me of him at times.) In the Netflix queue is Alban Berg's Lulu, which I've always been curious about because it's another adaptation of the same play that formed the basis for Pabst's silent film classic, Pandora's Box.

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