Kaija Saariaho’s opera “L’Amour de Loin” (“Love From Afar”) had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, in a period when Europe, especially Austria, was roiled by rising nationalism, movements to protect the sanctity of borders and demonization of the “other.”
This powerful work was presented for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night, at a moment when America seems shaken by its own conflicts, having just gone through an election stoked by rhetoric about immigrants and renewed calls for nationalism.
Feelings about the “other” run through “L’Amour de Loin.” In this story, however, the other is not demonized, but idealized. Yet, as this haunting opera suggests, idealized assumptions can also cause harm, however unintended.
With this production, by the director Robert Lepage, the Met has also addressed a serious gap in its history: “L’Amour de Loin” is only the second opera composed by a woman to be presented by the company. The first was Ethel Smyth’s “Der Wald” in 1903.
What matters most is that this impressive work has finally come to New York. Ms. Saariaho, born in Helsinki in 1952, has long been known for writing music rich with luminous sounds, astringently alluring harmonies, myriad instrumental colorings and atmospheric textures — qualities ideally suited to telling this medieval tale. The Lebanese-born author Amin Maalouf wrote the poetic and profound libretto.
The story tells of a renowned troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, prince of Blaye, in 12th-century Aquitaine in France. Grown weary of a life of pleasure and entitlement, Jaufré yearns for an idealized, distant love, but assumes that this is impossible. His hearty companions try to snap him out of it. A pilgrim just arrived from overseas, struck by the prince’s longing, tells him that the woman of his imagination exists: the countess of Tripoli, who is “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty.”
The pilgrim’s report fires the hopes of Jaufré, who rhapsodizes about the countess in song. At first he does not want to meet her, lest reality spoil his distant love. The pilgrim becomes a go-between, traveling across the sea to Tripoli to bring Clémence, the countess, news of Jaufré’s idealized devotion. She is also feeling sick at heart. Still, that a noble troubadour may love her so purely leaves her questioning if she merits such devotion.
Ms. Saariaho establishes the story’s mystical mood at the start with suspenseful orchestral murmurings, over which rising pitches stack up to form piercing, sustained chords. Jaufré’s first lament unfolds in phrases that subtly evoke medieval song, but with modes fashioned by the composer.
The bass-baritone Eric Owens, in one of his finest Met roles, makes an achingly vulnerable Jaufré. The earthy, weighty qualities of his voice convey the troubadour’s world-weary sadness. Yet, when the character’s ruminations take the music into higher lyrical phrases, Mr. Owens sings with poignancy and tenderness.