Andriessen Opera Makes Impact In Audio And Video

Louis Andriessen's fourth opera, 'La Commedia,' sets fragments from Dante’s 'The Divine Comedy' and other sources.
Louis Andriessen’s fourth opera, ‘La Commedia,’ sets fragments from Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ and other sources.

Louis Andriessen: La Commedia. Claron McFadden (soprano), Cristina Zavalloni (voice), Jeroen Willems (voice), Marcel Beekman (tenor), Dutch National Opera, Asko Ensemble, Schönberg Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor), Synergy Vocals, Micaela Haslam (conductor); Film by Hal Hartley.  (Nonesuch – 2 CDs, 1 DVD)

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Ever-affable, gentle and talkative in person, Louis Andriessen the composer is a whole other personality. Usually, he aims to provoke or shock; he roams the entire musical spectrum for his building blocks in a personalized, monolithic, in-your-face minimalist-influenced style. He leans far left in his polemics, and he takes no prisoners. So those who are used to traditional opera are hereby notified that Andriessen’s fourth opera, La Commedia — as recorded in audio and video versions in Amsterdam in 2008 and finally released six years later — is not exactly La traviata.

You get your choice in this package; you can listen to the score on the CDs as if this was a concert performance, or watch a DVD that juxtaposes and combines the concert with a film made by Hal Hartley that was shown on a large screen at the back of the stage. On the DVD, stretches of the performance alternate with vignettes and urban scenes shot on location in black-and-white, most of which seem to have little or nothing to do with the music coming from the speakers.

Andriessen La Commedia 350La Commedia sets fragments from Dante’s The Divine Comedy and other sources into five separate sections of roughly similar length (16 to 23 minutes each), which can be performed independently. The set, from what I can make of it from all of the tight shots, is a construction site that looks like a mechanized Erector set. The fearless Cristina Zavalloni (Dante) sings either from the stage or up on the Erector set. One of the singers is temporarily trapped in a pit filled with several translucent beach balls; others are dressed as construction workers with yellow hard hats. Reinbert de Leeuw, the world’s leading Andriessen champion, conducts unperturbed, head intently in the score.

As in the past, Andriessen’s walls of sound are heavily weighted toward the winds and brasses, with some outlying instruments (electric guitar and bass, cimbalom) providing color and underpinning. He eagerly throws American pop into his mix; Part 5 morphs into sauntering symphonic rock during Cacciaguida’s angry spoken rant about the uppity families of medieval Florence. Yet Andriessen’s most surprising shock tactics occur in Part 4, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” where the music turns playful with homages to Clair de lune and West Side Story at the outset, then surprisingly lyrical, even (gasp!) melodic. The whole thing is topped off by a children’s chorus quoting Dante, seemingly mocking us if we “do not get it.”

The sonics on the DVD have more warmth and body than the relatively harsh sound I heard in concert performances of Parts 1 and 2 in Los Angeles. That alone transforms the work, making Andriessen’s language more absorbing and flowing (the difference is less pronounced on the CDs). The Latin, English, Italian and Dutch texts, however, can only be found online, another manifestation of an annoying practice that even major record labels are doing in order to save money and make consumers work harder.

Nevertheless, Nonesuch has bravely continued its commitment to Andriessen (his previous three operas also appeared on this label), so that we can wrestle with another provocative, enigmatic, undeniably attention-getting work of his.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.