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La Commedia or, my dinner with Louis

Jeroen Willems as Lucifer. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

Thursday, April 15 marked the New York premiere of Louis Andriessen’s latest opera, La Commedia at Carnegie Hall.  I was lucky enough to make it up to New York for this event.

– Full disclosure: part of my trip to New York was to meet with Andriessen to discuss my plans for performing his 1984-88 opera, De Materie in Washington, D.C. this coming October.  I’ll be blogging a lot about that process in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. Frankly, I am as addicted to Andriessen’s music as the composer is to garlic (which I found out over bread and some very strong garlic dipping sauce over lunch) so I was glad to live within easily-traveled distance of New York and be able to attend this performance.  Anyway, this is all by way of a caveat that what follows may not be the most impartial review; I hope you’ll forgive me.

Andriessen’s work can be divided, somewhat, into periods based on one or two large works which define his compositional interests over the span of a decade or so.  De Staat, the work that brought him to international prominence in the 1970’s, provides a framework for the politically radical works that drove him in the decade of ca. 1968-1978/79.  De Materie frames his work of the 1980’s within the context of metaphysics and the spiritual world that culminates in 1996-97’s Trilogy of the Last Day, which overlaps with (and is unfortunately—at least in the U.S.—overshadowed by) Andriessen’s operatic collaboration with Peter Greenaway in Rosa (1994) and Writing to Vermeer (1997-98).  La Commedia, likewise, reflects Andriessen’s principal interests in the first decade of the 21st century and, in a way, bridges the Trilogy’s preoccupation with death with the theatricality of the Greenaway operas.

La Commedia is a “film opera” based, loosely, on Dante’s Divina Commedia.  Its production is by the American film director Hal Hartley, with whom Andriessen collaborated on other theatrically hybrid projects like The New Maths (2000), Passeggiata in tram in america e ritorno (1998), and the opera Inana (2003).  Due to budgetary constraints it was presented without the film in a “semi-staged” concert version on Thursday night.   While this is unfortunate in depriving the New York (and, earlier in the week, Los Angeles) audience(s) of an important aspect of the work, the abstractness of Andriessen’s treatment of his subject may very well be enhanced by the concert presentation, for this is not traditional opera by any stretch of the imagination and stretches the definition of the genre beyond the composer’s earlier work with Peter Greenaway (in fact, it has more in common with the earlier De Materie in terms of formal presentation than it does with Writing to Vermeer or the surreal romp, Rosa).

In La Commedia, only two of the four lead vocal parts retain a specific role.  Claron McFadden, in the role of Béatrice, was a revelation.  Her voice truly heavenly in the role with each of her disappointingly few moments on stage highlight some of the most beautiful music Andriessen has ever written.  Perhaps the most beautifully magical moment in all of La Commedia, however, belongs to Marcel Beekman in the tiny, surprising role of Casella.  Casella, a friend of Dante’s youth who died, unexpectedly at a relatively young age and who was himself a musician and composer who’d set, according to Purgatorio, canto 2, a love poem from Dante’s earlier work, “Convivio”.  As Dante arrives in Purgatory he hears his friend singing this familiar song and Andriessen’s setting of this moment manages to capture the ethereal beauty of that moment early on in Dante’s poem.  Beekman’s voice, emerging Thursday night from within the audience (surprising those sitting next to him), possesses a sweetness rare among tenors and his aria, joined briefly at the end by Jeroen Willems’ (at the moment) Dante, was, for me, a highlight of the evening.

The two principal singers, soprano Cristina Zavalloni (a frequent Andriessen collaborator) and baritone Jeroen Willems, primarily sing the roles of Dante and Lucifer, respectively, although they are known to trade identities throughout the evening (Willems, as pointed out earlier, momentarily takes on the role of Dante in the “Casella” episode of “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the opera’s fourth tableau).  Zavalloni is a special kind of singer whose voice is of a type preferred by Andriessen: not a traditional, operatic soprano, she has the delivery and tone of a jazz or rock singer but is more comfortable, it seems, in the world of new music and cabaret.  She is effective in the unusual role of Dante, giving the role a sexual energy that is, suffice to say, unexpected but, given Andriessen’s setting, entirely appropriate.  Willems, as Lucifer, provides La Commedia with its most terrifying moments in the extended aria that is the third tableau, “Lucifer.”  Willems, who is primarily an actor in The Netherlands (Andriessen refers to him as “The Dutch Jack Nicholson”), proved to be more than up to the difficult task of singing this very challenging music and his Lucifer is simply the stuff of nightmares.  His Cacciaguida (the great-great-grandfather of Dante Aligheri whom the poet encounters in cantos 15-17 of Paradiso and who comments on Florentine life in the 12th century as well as predicts Dante’s future) in part V, “Luce etterna,” is the polar opposite, giving a speech which updates the commentary of cantos 15-17 to modern English in a drunkenly humorous southern drawl that skirts the knife’s edge of cliché to become a memorably humorous moment indeed.

As engrossing as the soloists were in Thursday’s performance, it is the chorus and ensemble who carry the biggest weight in La Commedia, and Synergy Vocals and the Asko/Schoenberg ensemble, under the masterful (as always) direction of Reinbert de Leeuw, were more than up to the task.  These are some of the best performers in the new music world—indeed in all of classical music—and they proved their mettle on Thursday night, tackling a work full of wide, sudden contrasts requiring quick changes from the most highly energetic, rock/jazz tinged music, to thorny dissonances, to minimalist grooves, ironic pastiche and sublime beauty all within often tiny spans of time.

The music itself feels, at times, like a hodge-podge, and yet it is an incredibly successful hodge-podge.  It is a serious work which doesn’t take itself too seriously (the entire evening is capped by a children’s choir—here the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, performing admirably—singing “these are all my notes for you, and if you do not get it, you won’t get the Last Judgement [sic], you will never get it, ever”).  In the hands of a lesser composer such seeming indecision between seriousness and humor would be incongruous.  In Andriessen’s masterful hands, however, and given his personality, it makes sense that, after 100 minutes of pondering life’s imponderable questions, we would be brought back to earth by the  unself-conscious pragmatism of children.