Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? – Robert Browning
The best stories are not really about their characters, but about us.
Suzanne and I saw the opera L’Amour de Loin live from the Metropolitan Opera. It’s a relatively new opera for just three characters : Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye; a Pilgrim; and the Countess of Tripoli, Clémence. They were brilliantly sung by Eric Owens, Tamara Mumford, and Susanna Phillips, respectively, along with the always-wonderful Metropolitan Opera Chorus.
The opera, composed in 2000 by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho with a libretto by Lebanese librettist Amin Maalouf, is based on a centuries-old legend. It is set in Aquitaine in the 12th century.
Jaufré has been dreaming of a “faraway love” whom he has never met. He writes poems and songs to her. His friend The Pilgrim, a world traveler, hears his songs and poems.. The chorus tells him that no such woman exists, but The Pilgrim says that she just might. However, she remains a dream, an ideal. Although Jaufré can think of nothing else, he also believes he will never meet her.
The Pilgrim goes to Tripoli and tells Clémence that a prince-troubador sings of her, his “love from afar.” At first, Clémence is offended, but then she begins to dream of her “faraway lover.” The Pilgrim, returning to Aquitaine, tells Jaufré that his “love from afar” knows about him. Jaufré decides that he must meet her.
Jaufré and The Pilgrim set off on a journey across the sea to Tripoli to meet Clémence. Jaufré is both excited and terrified of this meeting. Although he is eager to meet Clémence, he is worried that he might be disappointed and the meeting could ruin his image of her. This conflict and anguish makes Jaufré quite ill, and by the time he arrives in Tripoli, he is dying.
When the ship arrives, The Pilgrim tells Clémence that Jaufré has arrived, but he is near death, and that he wishes to see her. Jaufré is carried in unconscious, but revives in Clémence’s presence. They declare their love for each other, then Jaufré dies in Clémence’s arms. This sends Clémence into a rage at Heaven, but she finally decides to go into a convent and prays to God, to her “faraway lover.”
This opera is about love. It is about romantic love and Divine Love. It is about passion that drives us to reach for the object of our desire, the thing we are passionate about, regardless of the consequences – even if we have to give our lives in the pursuit. It is about following our star, no matter how far it takes us. What is your star? What is your “love from afar” that won’t let you not pursue it? What is the thing you cannot not do? And are you willing to let it drive you, no matter the cost?
The story of Jaufré and Clémence reminds us to listen and follow this, that no matter the cost, the pursuit is always worth it. And sometimes, when you catch it, it really does live up to your vision of it. There is no better time than now.