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Review: Lepage Holds Three Hostage in Met Opera’s New ‘L’Amour de Loin’ Hostage

Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, December 1, 2016

Have you ever seen a really, really cute puppy sitting in a tiny, tiny crate? All full of trapped youthful life, love, joy and potential? All ready to just pop out? To be just, really fantastic?

And have you ever watched this fantastic joyful trapped puppy in this tiny crate for two and a half hours?

Well I took in Robert Lepage’s new Metropolitan Opera production of Kaija Saariaho’s haunting L’Amour de Loin tonight.

Now let me back up. I’m a big fan of Lepage’s work at the Met. His 2010 Damnation of Faust, though sometimes over the top, is solid, delightful imagery. Soldiers climb a 40 foot wall at the horizontal to be shot and fall, in harness, into a lover’s lap, to then climb again. Just stunning work. And his exquisite, if controversial, Ring Cycle is equally rich in cinematic visuals, now sustained over sixteen, sometimes laborious hours. That now famous ‘machine’ delivered for Lepage, for the Met and for many Ring lovers.


The Metropolitan Opera production of 'Das Rheingold' by Robert Lapage. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera production of ‘Das Rheingold’ by Robert Lepage. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Well with L’Amour, Lepage has brought another machine to the Met stage – a staircase that moves in and out, modulates to flat and back to stair, and so on. (It has somewhere between 18 and 19 steps – I counted a number of times.) And these 900 or so square feet represent the total playing area that Lepage gives the gorgeous three-person cast of this beautifully-sung production. Picture the deplaning stairs from Nixon In China and that’s about the total space that tonight’s actors have to inhabit.

That’s not fair – the rich mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford gets a canoe to stand in for most of her performance.

Now the total square footage of the Met stage is significantly greater than 6,000. So if these lovely singers get 900 square feet, who (or what) on earth is getting the rest?


Tamara Mumford and Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera production of 'L'Amour de Loin' Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Tamara Mumford and Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera production of ‘L’Amour de Loin’ Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

LED lights. 28,000 of them according to a proud Met. Five thousand square feet of tiered, programmed LED lights.

Now that sounds kind of exciting. Like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. And Like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it is exciting. For ten minutes. And then it’s excruciating. Bright, busy and empty.

It appears that Lepage gave himself his own Faustian choice. Do I trust this historic piece and this talented cast to sustain two and a half hours of opera? Or do I trust my lighting programmer? Boy did he get that wrong. There’s not enough lighting code in the universe to keep 5,000 square feet of opera house-LED lights compelling for two and a half hours.

As my mind wandered, I searched for an opera that could sustain this much water imagery. The Flying Dutchman? Billy Budd? Jaws The Opera?

(I also thought about how soprano Susannah Phillips and baritone Eric Owens were spending most of the night well behind the Met’s proscenium suspended high in the air without a particle of backdrop to project the voice into the Met’s cavernous house. I tried to give Lepage a pass on cruelty in favor of ineptitude for this ridiculousness.)

So for two and a half hours, I watched Lepage’s crate holding a solid cast lead by the immense Owens and the beautiful Phillips. Each sing exquisitely and having, in the past, proven themselves solid actors. I wish I could speak intelligently to Ms. Saariaho’s ruminative, gentle examination of love and death. But I just can’t. I’m still a bit blinded.


Tamara Mumford and Susannah Phillips in the Metropolitan Opera production of 'Lamour de Loin.' Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Tamara Mumford and Susannah Phillips in the Metropolitan Opera production of ‘Lamour de Loin.’ Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

And I don’t mean to beat a dead horse. But Lepage’s production of L’Amour bears a cloying resemblance to the 2003 Diller Scofidio + Renfro Lincoln Center Plaza redesign – a wide staircase inset with tiered LED lighting. In my made-for-tv historical drama on the making of Lepage’s Met Opera L’Amour de Loin, the frazzled director exits his car at Lincoln Center. Large Starbucks in hand, he is disheveled. Exhausted, he looks up. He considers the staircase he is about to climb. A smile creeps over his face as he dashes toward the Met.

ZEALnyc returns to L’Amour de Loin later this week and we may then have more to say about Saariaho’s important work and this smart cast.

L’Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho plays the Metropolitan Opera through December 29th in a production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Susanna Mälkki and with libretto by Amin Maalouf. Set and Costume design by Michael Curry, lighting design by Kevin Adams, lightscape image design by Lionel Arnould and sound design by Mark Grey. Susanna Phillips play Clémence, Tamara Mumford plays The Pilgrim, and Eric Owens plays Jaufré Rudel.

Cover Photo: Susannah Phillips and Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of ‘L’Amour de Loin;’ photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.


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