Gorgeous, beautiful, moving! Just to start with: the set by Robert LePage represents the sea with wall-to-wall horizontal strings of LED lights flecked with sprays of lighting changes. Glittering minimalism at its best. The characters play in between the rows of lights. The story makes the sea a central character. It separates and then unites the lovers.
I’m going to be able to cut corners on facts because of Alex Ross’s excellent review(s) in the New Yorker. I’m sure the NYTimes has good stuff to google also.
So Saariaho. She’s Finnish and 64. She’s so good it’s almost scary! Most contemporary opera never gets to this level. And she’s the first woman opera composer at the Met since Dame Ethyl Smythe in 1903. I just learned that Smythe’s opera was on a double-bill. But this is opera about a troubadour where the love story is actually moving, the physical encounter at the end though limited, is passionate and sexy. The death of the hero—this time, unlike so many opera deaths—from illness at sea is reasonable in Medieval times. She’s a “countess” (Susanna Phillips) and a fabulous, passionate creature who comes alive both to the fantasy of the hero from across the Mediterranean, and the real one in the flesh, The troubadour is a powerful baritone with a tenor upper range (Eric Owens). The Pilgrim is the only other character, genderless, but beautifully sung by Tamara Mumford. She’s the go-between for the lovers.
Yes, Wagner’s Tristan…, Yes, also Debussy’s Palleas…” and also the neoclassical revivals of “antiquity” by Lully and Gluck and others. The chant-like chorus emerges importantly as a part of the feel of antiquity. But Saariaho is her own person. The libretto in French is syllabic (one note per syllable). That makes it declamatory. It’s delivered almost entirely in a double-gapped scale (larger than one step between consecutive scale notes, like the “harmonic minor” but with a second gap earlier in the scale).
I found this an over-used device that made the singing feel contricted by the scale, though the singers worked against it. And the wonderful mid-views and close-ups possible in the movie theater created so much drama, character and emotion that it hardly mattered in the end. The camera was active without being intrusive. The sound was excellent at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. This is an amazing medium for opera. What will it do to the Met live performances? Well, that’s their problem. They must reduce Met ticket prices at least.
I’m still bothered and always will be by the opera singer’s vibrato, especially in this case by the baritone. In the close-ups of the Pilgrim, you could see her lower jaw vibrating to create the vibrato. Less so with the lead soprano. Whenever a “straight” tone emerged, I was enlivened. A mixture is what one hopes for.
More has to be said of the cluster-y, drone-using orchestral harmony. Vocal pitches are almost always embedded someplace in the orchestra texture. Sometimes, as in the ending, a very persuasive bass tone underlies a tonal center. At other times the texture with filigrees of solo instruments takes over, and a kind of pan-everything pleasurable sound suffuses us.
Thumbnail Review No. 50