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A difficult birth for `Adriana'

April 11, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — From the moment Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin" (Love From Afar) premiered at the Salzburg Festival six years ago, the wondrous medieval romance has seemed a charmed opera. But not so her second opera, "Adriana Mater," in which love is now up close and nasty. This time, Saariaho did not set out to charm, nor could much about this month's belated "Adriana" premiere by the Paris Opera be called charmed.

Although the work is hardly the disaster sniffy French critics have suggested, "Adriana" has, nevertheless, absorbed some of the troubled atmosphere of this particular April in Paris. The production was nearly undone by striking part-time technicians and stagehands, who forced a cancellation of the March 30 opening one hour before curtain.

Although unconnected with the large-scale student protests over proposed new national hiring laws, the opera crew's anger over losing generous benefits that accrue after only 300 hours' work a year was a symptom of a social dissatisfaction felt throughout France right now. The presence of heavily armed riot police makes parts of Paris feel like an occupied city.

The opera did finally have its premiere April 3, and given how many "L'Amour" collaborators are back, some magic might have struck twice no matter what the external strife. The Paris-based Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf is again the librettist; Peter Sellars once more directs; and "Adriana" has the same team for sets (George Tsypin), costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and lighting (James F. Ingalls). Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has been a close friend of Saariaho since their college days together in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, and who conducts on the recently released "L'Amour" DVD, is in the pit at the Opera Bastille, the Paris Opera's large, modern house.

Instead of magic, though, Saariaho and Maalouf managed to uncannily reflect the times they find themselves in. Maalouf sets the libretto in an unspecified, likely Balkan country. Adriana rejects the advances of a drunken village youth, Tsargo, who joins a resistance movement. When Adriana refuses to let Tsargo into her house to use the roof to monitor men attacking the village, he forces his way in and rapes her.

Seventeen years later, Adriana's son, Yonas, learns the truth about his father, who he had been led to believe died a war hero, and tells his mother that he will find and murder him. Needing to know whether her son has inherited his father's violence, whether he is a Cain or an Abel, Adriana doesn't stop him. But Tsargo, when Yonas finds him, is blind and pathetic. The son cannot kill.

On the surface, "Adriana" appears blood-and-guts opera in the manner of Verdi or Janacek. And much of the disappointment in it has been based on the fact that it is nothing of the sort. Maalouf's concerns are not about an enemy from outside. He examines what we do to ourselves.

Nor does Saariaho compose conventionally goal-directed (read: male) music. The incandescent beauty of her score for "L'Amour," with its enchanted floating orchestral effects and gorgeous vocal writing, was much praised. "Adriana" sounds less colorful, more gray and dissonant. But neither is it jarringly dramatic in the manner of verismo opera.

Saariaho still creates an ocean of sound, just a more viscous and polluted one. Even when there is a big brass moment between the sixth and final scenes, it grows into not so much a climax as a swelling of emotions that don't have any obvious place to go. This score is more like a barometer of the not always logical behavior of the opera's four characters: Adriana's sister Refka, a voice of reason in a world where reason has little value, is the fourth.

A report based on one hearing must be preliminary, what with so much going on underneath the surface of this roiling orchestral sea. One Paris newspaper, Liberation, called "Adriana" a "tragedy without depth." In fact, it is exactly the opposite: depth without traditional tragedy, which is much more elusive and interesting.

Le Monde didn't like the happy ending, if you can call damaged people simply being able to carry on a happy ending. The characters accept and overcome violence. Love for them up close was brutal. Only with distance, time and suffering do they recognize their mutual need. The music at the end is of a heart-rending, unsentimental beauty.

Sellars' production, like Saariaho's score, is in constant emotional flux. The characters often seem to be swimming without direction, and even the set of translucent cubes and domes that glow like candy feels vaguely subaqueous. But the glow comes late in the evening. For a long time, the look is drab.

At the second performance, on Friday, the opera felt, despite the reportedly difficult rehearsal period, quite well prepared. The principals -- Patricia Bardon (Adriana), Solveig Kringelborn (Refka), Gordon Gietz (Yonas) and Stephen Milling (Tsargo) -- were all admirably committed, with Bardon rising to real eloquence at the end. Salonen conducted with ferocious adamancy, and the Paris Opera orchestra responded in kind. The chorus, who sang offstage and whose mostly wordless music was electronically altered so that it surrounded the audience, sounded spectacular.

But just because "Adriana" got past its Parisian obstacles doesn't mean that its future is bright. This is a co-production with Finnish National Opera, which reports last week suggested may drastically reduce its staff by next year. Where "Adriana" will go after Helsinki remains to be seen, but perhaps the third production will be the charm.

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