Scene from Love from Afar with acrobats
Canadian Opera Company’s take on Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s 2000 opera Love From Afar has ambition. However, ambition does not always equal success. Yet, if you stick out the entire performance, you’ll find that the second half becomes much stronger, almost feeling like a different performance.
Love from Afar, directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca of Cirque du Soleil fame, certainly had the audience wondering what was in store for the performance, but the staging of this production was hit and miss. The beginning showed promise with a large billowing blue fabric falling from the rafters to the centre of the stage. It also incorporated some interesting puppet and shadow work early on and which was carried throughout at various points. The opening of the second act with a digital screen and water images was quite clever, however the insertion of random martial artists were just a testament to how overdone it was at times and which were completely unnecessary for the tale.
The end of the first act where Soprano Erin Wall (Clémence) was suffering an internal struggle of whether or not to wait for lost love Jaufré, standing against a red wall in darkness, may have been the most striking and poignant staging of the night and which really packed a punch. The rest was not as much of a visual feast as the audience may have wanted, but that may have come from not knowing where to look – should one look at the acrobat descending from the ceiling or toward the leads?
The costuming by Kevin Pollard seemed stronger in the second half. The pieces became more open and airy and suddenly the characters didn’t seem as constricted, literally and figuratively, by their confines. This seemed to open them up to fuller potential.
Soprano Erin Wall as Clémence bared the finest voice of the evening by far, though one might not feel the evocative power of the voices heard in other, much stronger, performances at the COC. Baritone Russell Braun as the tormented Jaufré was strong, but not quite strong enough and mezzo-soprano Kristina Szabó as the Pilgrim also seemed to open up vocally throughout the second half. You also cannot help but notice that the chorus was used very little in this performance. Sometimes – with stronger voices, such as in the COC’s 2009 version of Madama Butterfly – you don’t notice the lack of a chorus. One of the strengths of the COC has always lay in their talented chorus; and in a production such as this where the three leads were not spectacular, better inclusion of the chorus may have saved the performance.
The music, influenced by Wagner, can be heard in Love from Afar. Sometimes though, modern composers sound as if they are scoring a movie and when one is at the opera, the music really needs to move you. One should feel as though if you close your eyes, the music will tell you the story. It certainly cannot be said that the score was anything but somber, and it was obvious the tone of the story was lovelorn, but it felt the same throughout without enough concrete nuances throughout.
The Canadian Opera Company’s Love from Afar runs until Feb. 22 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For tickets, visit coc.ca.