Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler
Friends and readers,
There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.
Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.
They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.
The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.
What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.
In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.
You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.
Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:
While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.
Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught
an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.
I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.
There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall
The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.
You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.
I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.