As Europe’s leading minimalist composer, Louis Andriessen is very famous in Holland. He’s by no means unknown in the UK, with a South Bank festival dedicated to his work behind him.
That 2002 programme included the London premiere of his charmingly lyrical opera Writing to Vermeer and now De Nederlandse Opera has mounted his latest theatre work in Amsterdam.
Opera is maybe not the right word to describe La Commedia, as it hardly conforms to the usual criteria. There’s no libretto as such or coherent narrative thread and little semblance of a psychological through-line for the characters. Part happening and part installation, but full in its orchestral commitment, it follows a pattern of contemporary works breaking boundaries in opera houses around the world.
The text quotes from Dante’s Divine Comedy (its chief influence), the Old Testament and various Dutch sources. The director, American filmmaker Hal Hartley, says it has “no drama, no conflict. Just events.” Confusingly, the official programme gives a synopsis which approximates to episodes from Dante’s great poem while in the press notes a completely different situation is outlined. In the latter, a couple of young women hand out political pamphlets in Amsterdam, while Dante (sleek Italian soprano Cristina Zavalloni) is a lady TV journalist, Beatrice (pure-voiced Claron McFadden, the American soprano now residing in Holland) is a visiting dignitary and Lucifer (rugged Dutch actor Jeroen Willems) a psychotic businessman.
This can be (sort of) explained by the split between filmed sequences shown on a series of differently-sized and angled screens (the second scenario) and live action (the Dante bit), although there is intertwining of the two and very little that is recognisable to anyone familiar with the Divine Comedy. Clarity is not an issue here, with a mass of stimuli competing for our attention. In addition to the film (which includes glimpses of a group of musicians wittily named after the Malebranche, the gremlin-like demons whose grotesque comedy enlivens the later cantos of the Inferno) and the cavortings of the three principle protagonists, we have a bunch of workmen, garbed in grey with hard hats, who winch in and out on a noisy gantry, a children’s chorus and a pit full of gigantic bubbles.
Dominating all is Andriessen’s score which pounds, growls, sings and trumps its way through an endlessly inventive flow of near-melody. I can’t help finding that, steeped in European traditions, Andriessen has the edge over the US minimalists, with much greater variety and depth of expression. This magnificent score could stand alone as an orchestral work and the staging, stylish and incisive though it is, while not being exactly extraneous, feels like an add-on much of the time.
There’s certainly something site-specific and production-specific about the staging and one can easily imagine vastly different interpretations of the work. The sumptuous Theater Carr, just down the canal from the company’s home venue of Het Muziktheater, has been given over to Hartley’s flamboyant vision, with a vast semi-circular orchestra pit taking up the stalls area, all the action happening front of tabs and a giant screen nestling just behind the ornate proscenium.
Reinbert de Leeuw tirelessly conducts the combined forces of the Asko Ensemble and the Schnberg Ensemble including two pianos, electric guitars and a large and varied percussion section through over 100 minutes without break. Choral contributions are made by Synergy Vocals (who participated in the South Bank’s recent Prometeo performances), uniformed as the orchestra in grey dungarees.
This was a stimulating evening that succeeded in drawing scattered booing but mostly enthusiastic appreciation from the sophisticated Amsterdam audience and I hope the UK gets a chance to experience it before long. If I’d like to see the production taken out of the hands of the composer and Hartley, I mean no disrespect for the achievements of either; it’s just that the work has such potential for completely different approaches, it would be fascinating to see what another creative team would make of it.