On Thursday evening at the Met Opera, audience members bore witness to a true Gesamtkunstwerk as narrative, visuals and sound successfully came together in the première of a new production of Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin. Robert Lepage's staging, featuring breathtaking lightscapes by Lionel Arnould, was more cogent than his Ring cycle, garnering only a handful of half-hearted boos upon the curtain call. Susanna Phillips, Eric Owens and Tamara Mumford brought sensitivity to the words of Amin Maalouf's libretto, a tale of ocean crossings, gender fluidity, and the eponymous "love from afar" set in 12th-century France, Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Conductor Susanna Mälkki, in her Met debut, led the orchestra in a limber performance of Ms Saariaho's gorgeous music, the first woman-authored score to be heard at the Met in 113 years.

Eric Owens (Jaufré Rudel) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Eric Owens (Jaufré Rudel)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Ms Saariaho's score provides the musical illustration of the tale she knew she wanted to tell: that of 12th-century poet and troubadour Jaufré Rudel and his unattainable love, Clémence the Countess of Tripoli, whom he is told about by an invented character, the genderqueer Pilgrim. Ms Saariaho writes that she identified with both "the troubadour and the lady, these two parts of me that I try to reconcile in my life", one with feet on the ground and the other's head in the sky. A chorus provides commentary à la classical Greek chorus, serving as a "bridge between the characters and the orchestra". The orchestra's stacks of fifths, medieval dance rhythms and eerie electronic keyboard contributions accompanied the virtuosic soloists and the chorus' hissing, sighing and hand-clapping. Ms Saariaho's spectral sound world is more focused on colors and timbres than temporal juxtapositions of melody or harmony; the coming together of Clémence and Jaufré felt like blue and yellow fusing to make green.

Susanna Phillips (Clémence) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Susanna Phillips (Clémence)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

As Clémence, Susanna Phillips proved a virtuosic singer and actress. As Jaufré succumbed to illness and died in her arms, Ms Phillips betrayed a ragged hopelessness, her voice torn asunder by regret and sorrow. Although the character's about-face from commitophobe to devoted lover was difficult to swallow, Ms Phillips was extremely convincing during Act V as a woman throwing caution to the wind and allowing tragedy to consume her. Eric Owens' acting was slightly more wooden, but his Jaufré was note-perfect, communicating even perplexity ("I'm afraid of finding her, afraid of not finding her") in a warm honeyed tone. As the Pilgrim, Tamara Mumford seemed to steer the two lovers not just physically but musically. Ms Mumford, like the choruses, provided a bridge of sorts as she sang the middle range of pitches linking low to high and propelling the improbable love story to its inevitable disastrous end.

The Pilgrim's boat glides across a stage that shimmers like Saariaho's music. The fantastical LED lightscapes of Mr Lepage's new production rippled like a mildly hallucinogenic version of the Mediterranean. The heads and hands of the choruses sporadically appeared among the strips of light, bobbing up and down among the ropelike waves of luminescence. Michael Curry's sets and costumes, including Clémence's sumptuous sparkly gown, were a suitable complement to the 28,000 LED lights and floating, rotating staircase. Without any firm ground for the characters to stand on, and with Ms Saariaho's music materializing in mysterious tricklings and twinklings, the scenes felt removed from reality – in the best possible way.

Eric Owens (Jaufré Rudel) and Tamara Mumford (The Pilgrim) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Eric Owens (Jaufré Rudel) and Tamara Mumford (The Pilgrim)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Ms Saariaho's opera is a triumph, to be sure. However, this première would not have felt like such a historic event if the Met Opera did not have an utterly shameful history of lack of diversity – and it does not deserve praise for a tokenistic break in their streak of male-only programming and commissioning. (To date, they have commissioned exactly zero women composers; L'Amour de loin was not a commission but rather the tenth production of a tried-and-tested work, which was premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000.) Rather than marveling at Ms Saariaho's feat in the face of the classical music world's systemic misogyny, we should instead be marveling at the lengths to which the Met had to go to avoid programming any women for over a century. Instead of being impressed when women manage to be excellent enough to make themselves heard, we should be questioning why arts administrators and organizations aren't listening to them in the first place.