L’Amour de Loin

I was at the opening of L’Amour de Loin at the Met last night. It was a powerful opera, staged and performed with overwhelming thoughtfulness.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no set. There is nothing on the stage to indicate that the opera is going on at a place or time. The stage is all black, except for strips of LED lights stretched above the stage — forty thousand total bulbs, according to the program — that serve as set, lighting, Greek Chorus (the lights themselves provide commentary, though in addition to that, the chorus is literally in there, standing between strips of lights), and as much an illustration of the psychology of the characters and their world as the orchestra. In fact, the lights look the way the music sounds: washes of color, splashes and sparkles, formless turmoil, glistening stillness. Just as the music provides only the barest sense that it is ever tonally or melodically grounded, the stage floats, disconnected and unearthly. The singers  glide by, standing on machines or boats  that carry them across the stage. There are two significant exceptions to this. But from the first moment, the stage shows us that we are in a mental, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, metaphysical universe of affect, ideas, emotion, character. This isn’t an opera about a Medieval story or historical figures; this is an opera about philosophy.

I’ll admit, it’s a little hard to watch for two hours. As hard as it is for most of us to listen to atonal music for two hours. You start to get anxious for some kind of center you can grab onto. But I think that’s part of the point.

The hero, Jaufre, falls in love with the idea of a perfect woman. When a pilgrim tells Jaufre such a woman exists far away, he becomes obsessed. When the far-away woman, Clemence, complains to the pilgrim that no one in her land knows her, the pilgrim comforts her with the suggestion that this man knows her, or at least of her, and even loves her.

Clemence has mixed reactions, but ends up very interested in the possibility that someone might know her. We’re starting to think that maybe she’s a little shallow, to be so attracted to that kind of flattery, even though it does come from the desire simply to be known for herself. But at the end of this act, Clemence descends from her balcony and walks barefoot on the stage itself, between strips of LED lights. She repeats the words the pilgrim used to describe her supposed perfection to Jaufre, questioning how they could be true. Here, on the ground, her feet to the planks, she doesn’t try to respond the way she thinks she should respond. She is honest. Natural. She admits her flaws. She expresses doubt that she is good enough, that she deserves admiration.

Then the pilgrim tells Jaufre that Clemence knows about his songs, so Jaufre can’t resist travelling to see her. The journey makes him ill, and he hallucinates a Clemence who can literally walk on water. In reality, Clemence knows Jaufre is coming, and she wonders how she should act — play hard to get? Welcome him warmly? How, she wonders as she floats on her balcony, would the woman in his songs behave?

At the end of the journey, Jaufre is dying on the shores of Clemence’s homeland. Clemence descends from her balcony and meets him, maybe loves him in that moment. Jaufre dies.

And Clemence loses her shit.

She rages at God, literally stamping her foot on the stage and screaming. And here comes the chorus: “Be quiet. Your passions lead you astray. Silence!” She rages and wails, and the chorus tells her to shut the hell up because God will punish all of them unless she can rope it in like a good girl.

Clemence runs out of fight. She climbs back on her balcony, which then lifts her up even higher, even further from the floor, the stage, the earth, her honesty and her real self. She sings to God that He is now her love from afar.

Which is when my jaw fell open, and hung there until the curtain calls.

She conforms. She becomes the one destined for tragic death as she admires a distant, unknowable ideal. She denies what was real and natural, coming from her truest self. The abandons the hope of being known and loved for herself in order to do what she’s told. Twenty feet off the stage, disconnected from her truth, she vows to commit her life to this demand from the Chorus.

It felt like magic to watch. By far the most transporting experience I’ve ever had in a theater. It felt like time stopped and we swam for a while in questions and possibility. And when it ended with rejection of earthly connection, and return to the ideals of the distance and unknowability…

It leaves room for celebration, if you want it. If you believe, as I agree is a legitimate perspective, that personal connection and fulfillment through a sense of being known are secondary to commitment to the greater good, then it gives you that.

If you believe, as happens to be my perspective, that individuals can serve the greater good more effectively if they feel a sense that their individuality matters to someone, then it’s heartbreaking.

It’s ambivalent in the way only the greatest art can be.

Kaija Saariaho, you flooded me with wonder.

Susanna Malkki, I stand in awe.

Robert Lapage, that was beautiful and terrible as the dawn.

The singers — in roles and the chorus — holy moly that was amazing. Such a demanding score, floating between tonal loveliness and impossible-to-hear intervals with extended techniques… Wow.

Everyone should go see this. It’s like nothing else. Truly the highest and best that art has to offer.

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