How much plot does an opera need? I ask this because I go to opera with similar expectations to the cinema, when it comes to story. Just as 90 minutes plus in a darkened room with a huge screen demands a bigger story than the small screen in my living room (22 inches, since you ask), the immense musical and visual spectacle of the opera house demands a bigger story than an intimate stage play or an unstaged musical work. That’s my view.
This ENO production is the first UK staging of Kaija Saariho’s 2000 opera, a lovely work that combines evocative and atmospheric soundscapes with comprehensible and human sung lines. There is an electronic element, which is completely unobtrusive, un-gimmicky and entirely at one with the rest of the score.
This production begins with silence, as a pair of performers appear, acknowledge the audience with clownlike delight, and disappear into their shadow-play booth. Over the instrumental overture, their shadows take us firmly into the realms of symbolism and the unreal, and an array of visually gorgeous settings glide in and out. In fact, by the time Jaufré appears and starts to sing, I was quite eager for things to keep still for a moment.
The theme is courtly love, the medieval idea that a knight should devote himself to a distant, unattainable woman of high rank without hope of ever possessing her – think Lancelot and his love for Arthur’s Queen Guinevere. So Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Aquitaine and amateur troubadour, sings of his discontentment with the love of real women.
Singer Roderick Williams shares the part with two physical performers, and as they glide in and out of painted red panels, and he converses with an offstage chorus, it’s clear that this is a very abstract staging of a very cerebral work.
The plot, based on Rudel’s true story, is simple. He hears from a Pilgrim about the Countess of Tripoli, decides she is the perfect woman, and devotes himself and his writing to her. She hears of this, and hears the songs, from the same Pilgrim. When Jaufré learns that she knows of his love, he sets off to see her in reality, but falls ill at sea and dies within hours of meeting her.
Is that a real relationship? No. In fact, it’s less the story of a relationship than an exploration of why two people choose it instead of a real relationship. When Rudel’s actual poems are sung in the medieval French, the music takes a turn that evokes the music of that period, full of harsh, primitive harmonies, archaic scales and a note of loss and sadness. These songs are what bind Jaufré and his Countess together.
The Pilgrim, and the offstage chorus, almost take on the role of the audience in conversation with the separated lovers. Through these sung exchanges, analytical and often witty, the two stories unroll in parallel. The rose window of Aquitaine gives way to the pierced screens of Tripoli, and the Pilgrim seems able to move effortlessly between the two.
Director Daniele Finzi Pasca comes from circus, and uses the tripled roles to layer the work with dreamlike aerial images and dance. Instead of a naturalistic setting, he creates an impressionistic world that echoes the idealised inner worlds of the characters. The Pilgrim first appears over a rippling silk that could be the waves of the sea, or the changing hills over which she travels. When Jaufré sets sail, the sea dominates the stage, projected in all its changing moods onto a gauze behind which the physical performers appear and disappear.
I am unusually hard to please when it comes to circus. Unlike most opera critics I once spent a week studying circus direction with the Russian Maximilian Niemtchinsky, and defied a complete lack of aptitude to train in aerial performance for far too long, before admitting defeat, leaving a legacy of envy and bitterness. I also have a horror of Capoeira as a spectator activity. So you might well appreciate the circus elements far more than I did.
I found them largely spurious. The singers were interesting enough, on the whole, without the addition of stilts or flying hoops. Roderick Williams, as Jaufré, was outstandingly expressive and engaging. Joan Rogers as Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, gave full play to revealing lines like, ‘I’m not sure I would love the man as much as I love the poet’. And the Pilgrim’s knowing and mischievous interventions are performed with relish by American Faith Sherman.
But I can see why Pasca wanted to add poetic images to the music. Imagine a movie in which the two lovers never meet, have long philosophical conversations with the one person who has seen both of them, and then one of them dies. Where is the drama? Inside them, where it can only be revealed through words, music and the images from their imaginations.
Of course, you could tell the same story in the way a Verdi, a Wagner or a Puccini would, all huge arias and orchestral climaxes, but that would be a pity. Saariaho has made a more thoughtful, thought-provoking, touching and humorous work.
It has resonances beyond the modern experiences of long-distance or even virtual relationships. If Jaufré is in love with love, Clémence is in love with the idea of being loved. ‘I wonder how she would behave, the woman of his love songs?’ she sings, as his ship approaches. She sees herself anew through his eyes, just as he has found a new purpose for his life and art through her. Yet they are both living in their imaginations, not in real life.
So if you want a night out that will have you weeping into your hanky and leave you emotionally purged, choose something else. But if you want your brain to be more active after the show than before, and you can stand a little bit of capoeira, this is an agreeably challenging evening.
Till 11 July 2009