L'amour de loin (2000) is Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's first opera, but the mastery of its memorably dramatic music demonstrates incontrovertibly that she is a born opera composer. The opera has had numerous international productions and in 2003 it received the Grawemeyer Award, the most prestigious international award for composition. Saariaho was inspired to write an opera after seeing the 1992 Salzburg Festival production of Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, so it is not surprising that her first effort would be more concerned with introspection than with conventionally operatic drama. The French libretto, by Armin Maalouf, deals with twelfth century troubadour Jaufre Rudel, and the legend of his love for the Countess of Tripoli. Separated by thousands of miles, the two had an erotically charged but unconsummated relationship, which in the opera is sustained by messages carried between them by a Pilgrim. The poet finally makes the voyage to meet his love, only to die in her arms.
For a work on such an intimate subject with such an understated dramatic profile, L'amour de loin feels like a very big opera. Saariaho is dealing with large emotions, and what it lacks in outward theatricality is more than made up for in the vividness and depth with which it probes the psychology of its characters. The orchestra and chorus are vehicles for making audible the lovers' states of mind, which are frequently roiling with conflict and anxiety, and the music is consequently turbulent, powerful, and often very loud. (It's closer in tone to Tristan and Isolde than to Pelléas et Mélisande, two tragedies of thwarted love that it resembles in some ways.) Saariaho's counterintuitive take on Maalouf's intensely inward libretto works brilliantly. The ravishing orchestral palette, deft blend of Medieval and contemporary musical traditions, and gorgeous choral and vocal writing make this is a work that seems destined to endure.
Saariaho's text setting is exceptionally graceful and limber, and it's performed beautifully by the superlative singers on this recording. Mezzo-soprano Marie-Anne Todorovitch's shapely vocal interpretation invests the Pilgrim with so much nuanced individuality that the listener cannot help being drawn to the character. Her supple, infinitely colorful voice is responsive to the most subtle dramatic cues in the text and music; this is the kind of fully realized performance that opera composers dream of. The same can be said for soprano Ekaterina Lekhina and baritone Daniel Belcher as the lovers; the startling purity and focus of their voices, and the intensity and subtlety with which they inhabit their roles, make them absolutely compelling, both musically and dramatically. Kent Nagano leads Rundfunkchor Berlin and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin in a luminous reading of the richly variegated score. Harmonia Mundi's sound is pure, full, and warmly atmospheric. This outstanding performance of L'amour de loin should be of strong interest not only to fans of contemporary opera, but of new music in general, and to lovers of bel canto singing. Highly recommended.