Saariaho: L’amour de loin

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: L’amour de loin
PERFORMER: Daniel Belcher, Ekaterina Lekhina, Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Berlin Radio Chorus; German SO, Berlin/Kent Nagano


A medieval tale of idealised love, beyond normal comprehension, and fulfilled only at the moment of death; not Wagner or Debussy, but Saariaho’s mesmerising first opera L’amour de loin.

Premiered at the 2000 Salzburg festival, it is tempting to regard this diaphanous work as a Pelléas for the 21st century with its persistent delicacy of colouring being allied to timeless (and timely) themes of East meets West, otherness and the pursuit of dreams.

The events of Amin Maalouf’s libretto are minimal. Jaufre Rudel, upon learning from a pilgrim that the love of his imagination exists in Outremer, sets out to meet her, but becomes so anxious on the boat trip that he falls ill and, upon meeting Clemence, dies in her arms.

It is, of course, far more than the ultimate blind date. The drama is essentially internal, making it no surprise to learn that Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise gave Saariaho the confidence to write for the genre.

As with both Messiaen and Debussy, Saariaho’s magical score confounds operatic conventions, so that the fact it follows the grand French tradition in having five acts raises a wry smile.

A touch light-voiced at times, Daniel Belcher is a wonderfully driven Jaufré, while Ekaterina Lekhina adroitly captures Clemence’s vacillating responses.


Marie-Ange Todorovitch captures the Pilgrim’s attempts to negotiate the emotional minefield. Kent Nagano’s Berlin forces convey every nuance of this shimmering score, and the surround-sound recording is first-rate, making this a set that approaches ideal. Christopher Dingle