I’m pretty sure I forgot to tell you that we went to a performance of Tosca a few weeks ago. For me it was a real experience to see a Puccini, even one I didn’t know. I know reviewers felt like the leads were a little wooden but having only seen a couple operas in my life, I couldn’t tell. I don’t know the difference between great singing and bad acting and great singing and good acting, especially when I’m in the last row of whatever that theatre is called in the Four Seasons Centre. (If you have been in there you know what I’m talking about.) I quite enjoyed Tosca.
Last night we went to see Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin. (Yes, a French opera by a Finnish composer.) From the outset I was pretty sure I was going to like it. I knew it was recent and I knew there was an electronic component of the score, so that was exciting. On the other hand, I had never heard of Saariaho and I had no idea whether I was about to see some kind of revivalist shit.
But I shouldn’t have been worried. The music was wonderful. It combined seemingly numerous devices of twentieth century “classical” music into something that slowly seeped into your mind. By the end I was almost humming along, despite how un-hummable the whole thing was. There was a huge influence of the pre-serialist modernists and impressionists, me thinks, as there was a heavy dose of xylophones and other percussion. There were atonal moments (but very slight and subtle ones), there was a harp duo (!) in the orchestra that regularly played some of the major motifs and themes. The electronic component grew and grew as the opera went on, to the final act where at times the orchestra didn’t appear to be playing at all, and we just listened to loops. Even though the singing didn’t seem to quite fit at first, I began to get quite impressed. The vocalists were able to show off aspects of their voices that don’t always come through in the older operas. (At one point the lead female gets downright guttural.) The whole thing was very impressive.
I can’t say the same positive things about the libretto or the staging. Nothing happens in this opera. There is very little plot and there is very little in the way of anything beyond the singers telling us what they feel. Yes, there are a couple of good lines that should have elicited laughs from the crowd – I’m guessing the music was telling them it was “serious” – but on the whole the libretto is shockingly sparse and it sort of made me wonder what captivated the creators about this story. Nothing about the story captivated me. Now, I don’t normally care about the libretto: opera plots are generally stupid. But when you watch something for 2 1/2 hours the plot should at least grab you at some level. So I’m pretty sure that though I want to buy a recording (they weren’t selling it unfortunately) I have no interest in sitting through it again in a theatre, unless of course someone comes up with a better staging.
That was my other issue. Most of the people who actually stayed for the full five acts – I would say less than 2/3 of the original crowd – were talking in rapture about the staging. I must admit it was innovative: it combined ballet, acrobatics, film, some tricks you might see in a theatre and some tricks you might see in the circus together. (Fitting due to the director’s circus background.) Sure, that sounds interesting. But it reeked of the director throwing up his hands and saying “I don’t know what to do with this plot because nothing happens!” It was very busy. There were three of the two leads (one singer each, two dancers each) and two of the third lead – there were only really three characters in the entire opera – and there were lots of other people on stage doing whatever it was they were doing, all seeming attempts to distract us from the fact that nothing happens. I would have been happier to watch a symphony perform this with three singers and a choir and, say, some kind of video thing in the background (like a moving painting). I think that would have been more effective.
As a result, though I loved the music and am adding it to my list of works to acquire, I can’t really say it is a great opera because I think operas should have at least some kind of plot that allows an effective staging. Still worth seeing though if you like your music modern, or if you like your staging on the quirky side of quirky.