An idealistic young man named Jaufré, who lives in medieval France, has fallen in love with a woman he has never seen. He sends an envoy to Tripoli to tell the object of his desire, the Countess Clémence, about his love. The pilgrim tells Clémence that Jaufré has praised her beauty, her goodness, her humility — he’s besotted with his own vision of his beloved.
So begins L’Amour de Loin (Love From Afar), composer Kaija Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf’s 2000 opera, which closed its premiere run at the Metropolitan Opera at the end of last month. Its characters’ idealization of love is hardly anomalous in opera, where chance glances and happenstance meetings provoke otherwise ordinary men and women into exiles, murders, and suicides in the space of four acts.
What’s surprising, though, is Clémence’s (Susanna Phillips) reaction: She’s appalled. How, she asks, can this man who has never met her presume to know her well enough to love her? Those rumored good qualities of which he’s so enamored, she retorts, are just that — rumors. So he thinks she’s pious? No way: Her mind wanders in church. He thinks she’s humble? No, again: She worries about how her beauty measures up to every woman who crosses her path.
It’s a striking, moving, brutally honest scene, not least because it is so rare. L’Amour de Loin allows Clémence to ask the question implicit in so much opera: Are women loved for who they are, or for what men can project onto them? It’s hardly a coincidence — L’Amour is only the second opera by a woman the Met has ever produced, and the first in over a century.
Decibel-wise, there is no dearth of “powerful women” in this form. Take a few others from the first half of the Met’s season: La Bohème‘s avaricious and passionate Musetta sashayed down Paris streets and tossed her head at her admirers; the amorous courtesan Manon Lescaut followed her passion for the penniless des Grieux to exile and death in Louisiana. Musically speaking, women like these are dominant figures, the conveyors of opera’s most memorable and captivating moments.
But as people, they often exist reactively. Their stories rely on a limited set of responses to the plot-governing forces of male desire: refuse, succumb, suicide (often in that order). There is a big disconnect between the theatrical use of women’s bodies as powerful instruments and the narrative use (or disuse) of their bodies as means of action. They become nothing more than vessels of their own voices, moving the audience to catharsis as we weep over their glorious deaths. So often the occasion for opera, they are far less commonly its agent.
L’Amour de Loin was not the only recent Met production to challenge this norm. October and November saw the quiet, dark, and hauntingly realistic Jenufa, Czech composer Leoš Janá?ek’s’s 1904 portrait of the relationship between a young woman (Oksana Dyka), her mother-in-law (Karita Mattila), and their shared act of well-meaning infanticide. A verismo opera, it turns its focus away from mythic figures and toward the lives of average people.
Although Jenufa’s circumstances are, in part, dictated by the men around her (after all, her accidental pregnancy serves as the driver for the plot), the crux of the opera lies in Jenufa’s and her stepmother’s choices and desires — for a fresh start, for a new life, for freedom. They kill Jenufa’s unwanted bastard child because they seek to determine their own lives. Both survive to see the curtain fall, a feat for any female opera protagonist, gaining the possibility of at least bittersweet endings.
These two characters have less in common, thematically, with a Manon or a Mimi than they do with Mozart’s Don Giovanni — the unrepentant seducer who refuses to apologize for his actions even when literally being dragged down to hell to answer for them. His insistent “I am what I am” is the kind of violent agency that his female counterparts so rarely get.
One exception, almost a female equivalent to Don Giovanni, appeared at the Met in December: the titular Salomé, in the Forties-film-set-inspired revival of Richard Strauss’s 1905 adaptation. Musically, the opera reflects Strauss’s legendary misogyny; as critic Susan McClary has written, his discordant style highlights that Salomé’s sexuality threatens the harmonious order of things. But in this production, Salomé’s desires — her quite unchaste longing for John the Baptist, her obsession with humiliating her creepy stepfather, King Herod — were at the fore. Patricia Racette sang her not as a projection of male fantasy but an evocation of male nightmare, a woman who has spent so long being the object of desire that she is willing to kill — and die — to achieve a measure of control. When Gerhard Siegel’s Herod ordered his soldiers to kill his stepdaughter, Racette’s Salomé bared her breast to the knife. In death, she finally controlled her own sex, in an act that was not titillating but defiant.
Interpretations like these take hard work to pull off in the conservative medium of opera, whose traditional core consists of archetypes. Such is the demand of catharsis: Characters experience the extremes of emotion, transform them into music that grips and inverts us, and then through their deaths purge the world of their own intensity, allowing things to go back to normal for the survivors.
In this respect, L’Amour de Loin fails us: Clémence falls for the troubadour after hearing his music, but their first meeting becomes her final one — the troubadour dies, exhausted from his journey to meet her. The question of what it’s like for two human beings to actually get to know each other as humans is left unanswered. Salomé, of course, ends along with its femme fatale’s life.
That makes Jenufa, in its quiet approach, the most unsettling, and therefore triumphant: Jenufa’s village community is forced to reckon with being the sort of place where women are so desperate for some semblance of self-fulfilled happiness that they will kill their own kin to attain it. It asks the crucial question that turns the story’s women into real people: Once the passion, beautiful and terrifying alike, has settled, what happens next?