- L'Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho (2000, Salzburg)
Doctor Atomic is as perfect an example as exists of an opera conceived 'in the arena.' It expresses the Zeitgeist and seems to engage the thoughts, conscious and unconscious, of our era. But L'Amour de Loin is its polar opposite. An opera conceived completely out of step with any temporal concern and with a gaze planted firmly on the other-worldly. Saariaho may claim inspiration from Messiaen, but the guiding spirits seem as much Monteverdi and Gluck (and even Wagner in his way). This is opera as it was first practiced - with characters too larger than life to feel emotions the way we do. The characters plant themselves firmly in the middle of the stage, and they sing the kind of allusive poetry that either captivates or bores the shit out of you.
I should know, because I didn't understand the big deal with Kaija Saariaho for the longest time. Her music always struck me as a kind of exotic kitsch. Lots of clanging bells, lots of held notes, lots of aboriginal instruments, but no sense that this music expresses anything at all beside your typical college dorm sentiment "haven't we lost something in all this progress?" (usually uttered right before the person tries to convince you that you haven't lived until you've tried LSD).
I only 'got' L'Amour De Loin on the 5th try. I've never read the libretto, and my French is pretty hilarious. But the music tells one everything which the story contains. Like Wagner, it does so by wearing down your resistance. But unlike Wagner, there is no spiritual coercion. This is no assault on the senses, it is merely a seduction. The sentiments it expresses are quite untrue (and perhaps somewhat dangerous), but it appeals to everybody's longing for a different kind of world in which their remote ideals, appealing only because they are remote, come true. But unlike Wagner, there is no sense that we should try to make this world happen on planet earth. The only sentiment remaining is that we should wear our distant aspirations on our sleeves specifically because of their remoteness, and perhaps let them remain as remote as possible.