Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin, in ENO’s production by “new wave” circus director Daniele Finzi Pasca, is a feast of silk-waving and aerial acrobatics. Whether it has any more substance than the parachute of material that shimmers across the auditorium at the very opening is debatable.
Not a lot happens in the convention of Courtly Love, the mediaeval antithesis of our modern craving for instant gratification, but it does lend itself to more drama than Amin Maalouf’s elegant but humourless text allows.
Based on the writings of 12th Century troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, the 2000 opera tells an inert tale of yearning across continents. In this production, produced in conjunction with equally far-flung partners (De Vlaamse Opera and the Canadian Opera Company), an excellent trio of principals (Roderick Williams, Joan Rodgers and Faith Sherman) are doubled, or rather tripled, by cavorting dressalikes.
This multiple casting does produce some strong visual resonances, as do the stylish settings by Jean Rabasse. There’s much flying and drooping robes, which drip from cradles onto the stage like melting candles, while a neat wall disjoints itself to create doorways into a magical world.
If there is one failing in Pasca’s otherwise impeccable staging (not forgetting the contributions of the team of set, costume and video designers), it’s a lack of playfulness. It’s hinted at in the sideways-flown walkers, viewed as from above, which open the second half, but not fully developed. To be fair, the solemnity of the writing makes it difficult for the production to rise above the strictly portentous.
Two adult-children who cart around a TV on wheels, used for shadow dumbshows, seem superfluous, the boldness of the rest of the staging minimised to such an extent in this tiny booth that it’s unlikely to reach beyond the first few rows of the stalls.
A host of other composers flit across the surface of Saarahio’s score, most noticeably Debussy, Britten and Louis Andriessen, with strong reminders of the latter’s Writing to Vermeer, but without the Dutchman’s forward momentum and orchestral peaks.
The music does have a mesmeric effect, with a sensuous meandering wash frequently broken by pounding chords and the creeping-in of barely perceptible electronic sounds. But, without the spectacular visuals, this is a work that is unlikely to maintain interest (as attenders of the Barbican’s concert performance some years ago might attest).
The last new production of the ENO’s mostly superb season, this is a show that is likely to appeal to more than the regular operagoing audience and, tickets at the bargain price of just £20, is worthy of a (qualified) recommendation, with no promises that the magic will work for you.
The new season opens with another near-contemporary work, Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre on 17 September.