By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — Sometimes called a minimalist composer, but more accurately tabbed as a free-thinking provocateur, Louis Andriessen has become a familiar face around downtown Los Angeles over the last decade. Chad Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s chief operating officer, says that 13 Andriessen works, both new and old, have been played by the Philharmonic over this period (plus at least one more by the Los Angeles Master Chorale), and the affable Dutchman has been a regular presence at the pre-concert lectures.
A big fuss was made over the New York premiere of his De Materie in March as if this was one giant scoop, but hardly anyone bothered to mention that Los Angeles had seen and heard it already in 2014 (albeit without the 100 sheep!).
So, here at Andriessen Central – a.k.a. Walt Disney Concert Hall – the Philharmonic leaped out in front again May 6 with the world premiere of another unorthodox Andriessen opera called Theatre of the World. They indulged Andriessen and his collaborators big-time with a fully-staged production co-produced by Dutch National Opera, which will be presenting the piece in Amsterdam at the Holland Festival June 11-19. Ultimately, though, Andriessen’s score was a good deal more interesting than the opera as a whole.
Swiping the title – with permission – from Colgate University professor Joscelyn Godwin’s 2009 book Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World, Andriessen has constructed what he calls a “grotesque stagework” in nine scenes and an epilogue about the Jesuit scholar-scientist-polymath Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), catching him at the age of 76. In some ways, it’s a good match of subject and composer, for Kircher had about as eclectic a collection of interests as Andriessen has of musical idioms that interest him. Perhaps it’s also significant that Andriessen currently is the same age as Kircher in the opera; the composer turns 77 on June 6.
Kircher was way ahead of his time by using a microscope to observe the blood of plague victims, finding that the disease was caused by microbes and suggesting ways to prevent infection. He constructed a magnetic clock and a megaphone; he studied and wrote about volcanoes, fossils, China, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Bible, even music theory. A lot of what he wrote has since been disproven, but the mind still boggles at his curiosity and range.
In this opera, Kircher is whisked across the centuries and continents, going back 3,000 years to ancient Egypt and forward to the 17th century. The Holland Festival’s website tries to sum things up in one sentence – “After a life of scientific research, Kircher shows us his findings in his `theatre of the world’” – but we don’t really get a sense of his “findings” in Pierre Audi’s production, or in Helmut Krausser’s libretto.
Kircher (baritone Leigh Melrose) first emerges clad only in white boxer shorts, snarling, writhing, as a lone trombone slides down the scale almost comically. A 12-year-old child simply called the Boy (sung by soprano Lindsay Kesselman) – sometimes wearing a shirt with a green Batman logo – acts as an inquisitor and companion, eventually presenting Kircher with a portfolio of illnesses that would kill him.
Pope Innocenzo XI (Marcel Beekman) appears as a high tenor who mostly just seems to want to go home, and another omnipresent character is Kircher’s unctuous Publisher from Amsterdam (Steven van Watermeulen). Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a historical Mexican contemporary and follower of Kircher, recurs as a kind of angel from on high, offering reflective declamations as sung by Andriessen’s fearless perennial muse, Cristina Zavalloni.
The Quay Brothers decor and video team provided a series of surreal images projected upon a black screen encased in a frame like a second theater above the stage, flanked by dimly lit supertitles. The libretto tripped along in several languages, sometimes switching among them within the same sentence. This perhaps intentionally mirrors Andriessen’s borrowings from many musical idioms, but I don’t see how it helps an audience relate to this weird odyssey of a plot, even with the aid of translations. There were probably a lot more baffled folks in the room than indicated by the clomping of feet on Disney Hall’s resonant wood floors from those making an early exit.
Not for the first time at a Disney Hall multimedia event, it was tempting to just sit back, forget about the visuals, and concentrate the senses upon the music, which featured Reinbert van Leeuw, the world’s leading Andriessen champion (granted, it’s a very short list), presiding on the podium. The music in the opening scene was quite dramatic, stamped with Andriessen’s profile but now in different colors, loaded with dark shadings in the lower regions. As in the U.S. premiere of Mystërien here in October 2015, Andriessen’s orchestra looked conventionally symphonic, even allowing for the plethora of percussion and electric instruments onstage. Also, the orchestrations weren’t weighted as much toward the winds and brasses as in previous works.
Yet Andriessen’s irrepressible yen to roam the musical spectrum – he likens this to pulling books or scores off his shelf at home – surfaced soon enough. The Pope entered to the brittle sounds of a paraphrase of the old rock `n’ roll hit song, “Tequila”; the Boy sang about Egypt in a syncopated Bernstein-like manner. Elsewhere, one could hear soft rock grooves from a trap drum set, a swinging jazz beat with big-band saxophones, a bit of Mexican pastiche at one of Sor Juana’s entrances, allusions to early Baroque music, and the 20th-century rigor of Bruno Maderna. Only in the China segment did something emerge that resembled a full blast of the old confrontational Andriessen wall of sound.
Everything, though, seemed more smoothly integrated into a whole than ever, as if Andriessen has reached the point in his creative life where he is gathering it all together in a summing-up stage. And the LA Phil, by now more accustomed to the Andriessen idiom than any ensemble this side of the Netherlands, played with stunning clarity and unity, seated at the front of the stage so that the Disney acoustics could work at full capacity.
In the Epilogue, with Kircher dead and gone, Voltaire, Descartes, Goethe, and Leibnitz make cameo appearances ridiculing the Jesuit posthumously, with the music now lighter in tone, but at the end they give his legacy a positive overall impact. It was a long sit to get to that point: 110 minutes without an intermission. Fortunately, for those with limited endurance in such situations, the performance was being recorded for future release.
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.