Retelling at a Distance: L’Amour de loin

Jaufré Rudel dies in the arms of his beloved. BNF ms. fr. 854, fol. 121v.

The twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel left behind six poems, four with melodies. One of them, words and music, is imbedded at the heart of L’Amour de loin, a medieval artifact at the core of a modern work.

L’Amour de loin (Love From Afar) is an opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, with a libretto by the Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf. It is based on a thirteenth century legend about Jaufré Rudel. For me, seeing the opera was a chance to reflect on retelling, and the particular challenges of retelling a medieval work for a modern audience.

The premise of L’Amour de loin is almost forbiddingly medieval. Jaufré falls in love with a woman he has never seen, the far-off countess of Tripoli, because of the good things he hears about her from travelers. It’s hard to imagine a less plausible reason. How is this possible, unless love itself means something different from what we assume?

It does. For Jaufré, being in love is all about writing poems. His impossible love is an excuse for his true obsession: his own words and melodies, which flow all the more freely because the lady who inspires them is an absent ideal. The trouble arises because she isn’t – she’s real, she learns how Jaufré is using her, and that knowledge changes everything. Her journey through the bewildering landscape of Jaufré’s obsession takes her from outrage to impotence (unable to compose poems, how can she answer her lover?) to rage.

All this is authentically medieval, an exploration of the self-destructive logic of courtly love. “If death were not so close, you would not be so near,” Jaufré sings to his lady toward the end of the opera.

Watching the story unfold according to rules laid down by a handful of poets writing in Occitan nearly nine hundred years ago, I thought of another kind of distance – that between the medieval story and its modern audience. Retold today, the legend acquires resonances its thirteenth-century writer couldn’t have imagined.

For this is a crusader story: the distant countess is a Frankish noble in the crusader state of Tripoli, in modern-day Lebanon. Jaufré, lord of a tiny principality in what’s now southern France, “takes up the cross” when he journeys to see her. This crusade isn’t about war, though; it’s about distance. The distance between East and West, the misunderstandings that arise from idealizing the other. The ruin that comes of trying to close the gap.

To tell medieval stories is to be confronted with that gap, again and again. Perhaps, the opera suggests, it’s best to acknowledge our distance. The far-off world of the past can never be entirely present to us.

In Act II, a pilgrim sings one of Jaufré’s songs to the countess. The delightful surprise for me (lost, I have to assume, on most of the rest of the audience), was that the song really is Jaufré’s – performed on instruments that didn’t exist when he was alive, but otherwise not so different from what he wrote in the twelfth century. The medieval poet is allowed to speak, not in the voice of the character who plays him, but in the voice of the go-between, the pilgrim (poetry is also a go-between), who sings it while apologizing for his faulty memory (history is also a faulty memory). Stopping and starting, bit by bit, the pilgrim delivers a flawed performance that he hopes is “more or less” right. Jaufré, when he hears that one of his songs has been performed “more or less,” is outraged. But, at this distance, “more or less” is all we have left.

Read the New York Times review of L’Amour de loin here.

Read Jaufré’s medieval biography (English translation by Rupert Pickens) here.

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