Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Distances

Completed my season of Saariaho by inviting my parents to the encore screening of the Metropolitan Opera's new "L'Amour de Loin" in HD.

It was their forty-second Met in HD opera! I've been only a few times, and still don't know what I think about it. I mean, I'm delighted that many more people have a chance to see opera, including a taste of the excitement of live performance, and it's fun to go behind the scenes to hear the performers in interviews during the intermissions, etc. During the opera itself the busy camera also lets you see things not usually part of the opera experience (especially if you're up in the Family Circle with the hoi polloi), from details of sets and costumes to close-ups of faces straining to make those glorious sounds.

I was happy to have a chance to see the parts of "L'Amour de Loin" you could only guess at from the Met's Family Circle - where I was for the premiere three weeks ago, dazzled by the shimmering set and the music welling up from the pit (the sound is best in the Family Circle, I'm told), but from that distance the three performers were tiny and their few movements made for a defiantly static scene. I also wanted to see if the story and libretto seemed less, well, facile. So?

The HD production couldn't convey the beauty of the sea of constantly shifting LED lights or the stately movement of the singers across it in small and larger craft. In exchange we got to see the singers up close and personal, squirming with perhaps too much effort at emotional realism in their constricting spaces on the abstracted set - and the choruses parked uncomfortably beneath the waves. The music, however, familiar on second hearing but still new, was enveloping and lovely. And I came to see how the Kahlil Gibran-like words by Aamin Malouf, full of tidy paradoxes and inversions, fit with the way Saariaho's music works. Even the final scene, when the riddles stretch toward transcendence (God, as love, goodness, pardon, passion, becomes heartbroken beauty Clemence's "amour de loin"), makes a kind of sense riding the ripples and surges of sound on which the characters and their not-quite-human yearnings have been floating all along.

It's not quite my kind of spirituality but the opera beautifully conveys the life-distancing purity which is its theme. Does it do that better in the jewel box stillness of the Met, where the music and lights are the sun around which the singers orbit like little planets, or in the more personable format of HD, with billboard-size close-ups? In the former, Clemence ascends into, well, the firmament of grand opera. At Edwards Mira Mesa Stadium 18, Susanna Phillips' radiant face came home with us.

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