Let's not beat about the bush. This is an opera in which practically nothing happens. In terms of action, the troubadour Rudel makes a sea voyage from Europe to Africa, gets ill on the way and dies almost as soon as he reaches his `distant love' and that's about it. And all of that happens in Acts 4 and 5. In musical terms, there is very little musical development of the few fragmentary themes, little in the way of obvious melody apart from what comes from Rudel himself in the 12th century and not that much rhythmic interest either.
And yet it can be a totally riveting piece.
It is the kaleidoscopic colours of the score that lie at the heart of the piece. Saariaho is a mistress of the orchestral palette, evoking deep rumblings, glittering flashes, turbulent storms and, at times, a heart-rending keening from both the vocal and instrumental lines. The vocal lines throughout, even if they lack some of the instant melodic memorability of some modern operas, also lack the seemingly arbitrary angularity of many others. They are almost always lyrical and, even when they lie high in the singers' registers, still fall happily on the voice. And the last scene of the opera, when the lovers finally meet and when, after Rudel's death, his `amour lointain' is left to sing her searing prayer (to God? to Eros? certainly to Love in all its guises) is an intensely moving liebstod - certainly as sung here by Dawn Upshaw.
With such a signal lack of action, any production has to work pretty hard to maintain the listener/viewer's concentration. This Peter Sellars production, taken from performances in the composer's native Finland, is certainly visually arresting. The set simply consists of two shining metal spiral staircases, one to the left and one to the right of the stage, representing the castles in France and North Africa respectively. Between them and all round their feet is a large expanse of water (real water, that is), broken only by the shape of the Pilgrim's boat. This makes things pretty tough for the singers playing Rudel and Clemence. For the first 3 Acts they have to do all their singing and acting within the confines of their respective stairways which is both confining and limiting. Then, with freedom, comes a soaking - by the end of the piece, poor Dawn Upshaw is soaked to the skin. For all that, it has to be admitted that the stage pictures are very beautiful. This is a production at the opposite extreme from the recent one at the London Coliseum where all the floating and flying and supernumerary players for the principals just became distracting.
Having said that, the performances of the principals themselves on this DVD are excellent. Gerald Finley who plays the troubadour, Jaufre Rudel, has always shown himself a fine actor and a fine vocal actor, too, colouring his voice and shaping phrases to give them individuality, character and meaning. So it is here. Constricted as he is by the production to spiral staircase, Pilgim's boat and deathbed, he still engages our interest, involves us and finally moves us as he goes from adumbrating his ideal unattainable distant love to actually embracing her. Monica Groop makes the sometimes thankless role of the Pilgrim into a real person as she moves back and forth across the water between the French staircase and the African staircase. And, when she gets to sing Jaufre's songs to Clemence, she makes the most of the most immediately memorable and beautiful melodic lines.
Dawn Upshaw is simply stunning as Clemence, the amour lointain of Jaufre's imagination. As the focus of the opera gradually moves from Rudel to Clemence, so Upshaw takes hold of the work and its music (and of us, the audience) and makes of the final scene a totally harrowing and moving piece of theatre. Her great ambiguous final hymn to Eros, Thanatos, God, probably all three, is one of the great moments in theatre, captured here on DVD.
Despite my caveats about the production and even about the static nature of the drama and the music, this is an important opera of the new century (just) and on this DVD proves itself a compelling and ultimately an intellectually and emotionally stimulating piece of theatre.