The title is simple, the story is a dream, but the musico-theatrical world behind Kaija Saariaho's opera L'Amour de Loin arrives with a 21st-century sophistication not found many places outside the Metropolitan Opera, which will simulcast the opera at 12:55 p.m. Saturday in six Philadelphia-area theaters.
Fortunately, the opera's apparatus — from the 28,000 LED lights to the electronic track that enriches the live orchestra and singers — is earnestly devoted to telling Saariaho's story of a medieval troubadour who falls in love with the distant Countess of Tripoli on the basis of description, aided by a mysterious go-between known only as the Pilgrim. Nearly as earnest is the cast that's familiar to concertgoing Philadelphians: Eric Owens (a native), Susanna Phillips, and Tamara Mumford have all been presented by Opera Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, or both.
In contrast to some of Saariaho's denser pieces (played recently by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble), the expansive L'Amour de Loin (premiered in 2000) is too immediately entrancing to require any previous indoctrination. The Act 4 orchestral prelude, for example, is a series of such imposing sonorities as to suggest tectonic plates shifting radically. And it's at this point in the Met's new Robert Lepage production — thanks mainly to simple ribbons of LED lights hanging horizontally across the stage — that things start to undulate and even gyrate.
It's thrilling — and only one moment when you realize how closely attuned the production is to the music. Lepage had heaps of bad press for his uneven Ring cycle, but there's no question his directorial decisions in L'Amour de Loin have been guided by an intense love for the music. Because so much of the opera is about separation, the LED lights often become an artificial ocean with sunlight coming out from behind clouds. In the midst is something suggesting a jetway staircase that moves singers around the stage in dramatically apt ways. Lepage can't help showing off a bit: During one fantasy sequence, soprano Phillips (who makes an alluring Countess) appears to walk on water.
The opera could have been awfully static, as the two characters long for each other from distant shores. And, yes, action is not a priority here. But this is storytelling from the inside out. The ether waves (as well as ocean waves) surrounding these characters are so intensely projected that what might be static is vibrantly stationary. It's like looking at water under a microscope: The surface is placid but nothing else is.
Often, the music is downright geological, with a solid bedrock at the bottom and all sorts of layers that often seem to have no predetermined destination and that would seem to be music for lost persons — were it not propelled by such interesting whims of fate. Conductor Susanna Malkki didn't project those qualities in the score with as much force and detail as I've heard in the past, at least on the Dec. 1 opening night. The electronic element, which sometimes has whispering that's just out of comprehension range, hadn't achieved maximum utilization at opening night. L'Amour de Loin may be ethereal, but that doesn't mean it's immune to the vagaries of the operatic medium.
The Met is said to have originally planned to stage Messiaen's St. François d'Assise with Owens in the title role. When L'Amour de Loin took its place, Saariaho was reportedly open to adjusting the vocal lines to better suit Owens, whose range is lower than those who typically sing the part. That didn't happen. Particularly in the first half, he sounded vocally uncomfortable on opening night. Perhaps that has changed. Phillips was in good form, but not sounding entirely at home either. Only Mumford's portrayal of the Pilgrim seemed fully realized. But you won't hear me complain too loudly: These are still major artists in major roles. And I'm just glad the opera is presented with the artistic magnitude that's possible at the Met.