After more than a century, the Metropolitan Opera has staged another opera by a female composer. The reactions have been mixed. It’s great to see another woman at the Met. It’s awful that it’s such a rare occurrence (at the Met and most other American companies). And it seems a shame, in this day and age, that we still need to be aware of the “female composer” category, since Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer who wrote “L’Amour de Loin,” an opera that has been done around the world before it came to the Met this month, is a major creative force regardless of her gender.
Thinking about the gender of the composer is not conducive to a dispassionate appraisal of her work. There is very little useful one can say about so-called “feminine” traits in music without falling into meaningless or patronizing stereotyping. Yet if you decide to view “L’Amour de Loin” — which I saw years ago in Santa Fe, N.M., and on Saturday night at the Met — through the filter of femininity, one could say that it deliberately does not conform to the conventional template of operatic action and drama — a template established, of course, by men. “L’Amour de Loin” is a static soundscape, as much oratorio as opera, with lush music encasing a story that inverts the usual boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, tragedy-strikes plot line of melodrama: In this opera, the boy does not meet the girl (the troubadour Jaufré falls in love with the Countess Clémence without ever having seen her), nor does he really get the girl (Jaufré dies almost at the moment of their meeting).
Dramatic stasis is certainly not a female characteristic — I have the same criticism of John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” which makes an oratorio out of one of the more dramatic chapters in American history. But Saariaho’s extended meditation has a definite dramatic point, putting a new spin on the thwarted-love trope so beloved of opera librettists: Her entire opera, to a libretto by Amin Maalouf, is about the unattainable and people luxuriating in the exquisite joy of being consumed by a love you don’t think you’ll ever be able to realize. The desire for the thing you cannot have is certainly a well-known operatic trope (think “Werther,” think “Don Carlo”), but Saariaho and Maalouf make that desire the entire subject of a work that becomes dramatically tedious but remains musically ravishing, with music that pulses and throbs and crests, particularly well rendered on Saturday night by conductor Susanna Mälkki.
The Met’s production, by Robert Lepage, pulled out all the stops to do right by the opera, make a case for its theatricality, and offer a grand-opera spectacle to offset the quiet intimacy of the score. Lepage reflected the shimmering beauty of the music with a sea of lights, threaded in strings across the stage, and constantly changing colors, now evoking moonlight on the ocean, now rising up like great waves while the chorus bobbed, a scattering of dark heads on the luminous surface. He did betray the fondness for elaborate stage machinery that was so problematic in his much-touted Met “Ring” cycle; the centerpiece of Michael Curry’s set was a large pivoting seesawing platform that moved and turned in a stately manner, thrusting aloft first one of the lovers, then the other, and looking not unlike a leftover from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. But at least it created some movement.
There are only three singers in the cast, so they do a lot of heavy lifting. Eric Owens was something of a cipher as Jaufré, singing, as always, earnestly and with vocal power but without really inhabiting the role or making much of it — a great talent who seems, these days, to be missing his marks. Susanna Phillips sang strongly in the luminous central role of Clémence, a woman who finds herself adored, shimmering in a silvery dress that picked up the colors of the lights around her. She pulled off a role that requires a singer to traverse the whole operatic emotional arc from daydream exultation to anguish when Jaufré dies in her arms without actually having much happen to her on stage.
The two figures are linked by an allegorical Pilgrim, a figure for whom pilgrimage seems to have become a state of being, continually going back and forth across the ocean, poling a boat through Lepage’s luminous sea: an archetypal go-between, an incorporation of the written or sung word, the things that replace actual consummation — and thus a representation of the opera itself. It’s the most dynamic role on stage, and Tamara Mumford sang beautifully, with a dark and shining tone.
All of the ideas in “L’Amour de Loin” are strong, and the music is beautiful. The experience of watching it is a long, dreamlike suspension of expectation: To make its point, the work has to be something of a dramatic slog. For all of the work’s virtues, I am not utterly convinced by the result, but hearing fine music in a strong production is an experience that’s rare enough that it should be commended, and appreciated.
“L’Amour de Loin” continues at the Metropolitan Opera through December 29.