Saariaho L’Amour de loin, (Love from afar), English National Opera, London Coliseum

3.00

If you could see Kaija Saariaho’s undulating and deeply sensuous music it would look pretty much like Daniele Finzi Pasca’s staging of her first opera L’Amour de loin (Love from afar).

This whole show is designed to waft us into submission, its washes of constantly evolving orchestral texture reflected on stage in Cirque du Soleil like dreamscapes of flying acrobatics and billowing silks. Beautiful but precious – which is ultimately the opera’s problem, too. This is a piece which rejoices in the old adage that it is better to journey than to arrive. Its fulfilment is as nothing compared to its promise.

The central idea of L’Amour is a compelling one: a medieval French Prince and troubadour (Jaufre Rudel, who actually existed) and a French Countess in exile may or may not be destined for each other. A travelling Pilgrim (the excellent Faith Sherman) initiates and facilitates their “love from afar”. That title has some resonance with the internet generation (who incidentally can buy tickets for £20 for the remaining performances) in endorsing the idea that distance (or anonymity) really does lend enchantment, promoting safety in fantasy. “I, troubadour, am only beautiful when reflected in your words” sings the Countess Clemence, “The songs you sing caress me more than a kiss.” The tension lies in wondering if the fantasy can or will ever become reality.

Finzi Pasca is plainly interested in exploring the elusiveness of the perfect “connection” and by replicating the three leading players in triplicate, using dancers and acrobats, he offers us a choice of perspectives as well as that hard to achieve sense of “so near and yet so far”. From the opening moment where a shock of blue silk floats over the audience’s heads to the stage we are in a kind of temporal limbo with psychedelic seascapes ultimately suggesting an eternal divide.

The problem with Saariaho’s texturally exquisite score, beautifully realised here by Edward Gardner, is its lack of variety. If two hours in a floatation tank is your idea of heaven, then this is for you. Roderick Williams (Jaufre) and Joan Rodgers (Clemence) do well by the swooning vocal lines but even they cannot disguise the fatal lack of drama. And even as Clemence’s final tirade against God softens into the idea that he shall now be her “love from afar”, the satisfaction comes from Finzi Pasca’s countless points of reflected light, literally dazzling, not from Saariaho and her librettist Amin Maalouf’s quasi-religious cop-out.

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