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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Opera Review: The Glory of Infinite Resources

The Park Avenue Armory stages Louis Andriessen's De Materie.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A zeppelin watches its flock in Part IV of Louis Andriessen's De Materie.
Photo by Wonge Bergmann for the Park Avenue Armory © 2016 Park Avenue Armory.
The yawning black void of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory is the largest theatrical space in the art music community of New York City. This week, that vast black slate is the playground of director Heiner Goebbels and the first North American stage production of De Materie, a sprawling two-hour work by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Like some of the larger works by Hector Berlioz, De Materie falls somewhere between enormous symphony and fully staged opera. This work is both staggering in its achievement and bewildering in scope, an expression of what can be achieved when a composer's imagination meets a director's enormous budget.

Completed in 1988 and first staged by Robert Wilson in 1989 at the Musiktheater in Amsterdam, De Materie uses the history of the composer's native Netherlands to explore the relationship between mankind and the material world. Divided into four distinct movements, the work draws on ship-building, religious mysticism, jazz, the art of Piet Mondrian and in its last movement, the scientific discoveries of Marie Curie. All that doesn't even mention the most startling feature of this  production: a herd of real sheep ("from the Pennsylvania countryside", boasts the program) whose bleating, stamping and butting provided the evening's greatest entertainment value.

At Thursday night's performance, 56 players from the International Contemporary Ensemble was ensconced in a movable orchestra pit at the foot of a grandstand of audience seats that occupied the west end of the Drill Hall. The music started with an exploration of rhythm, 144 repetitions of the same fortissimo chord, sounded by two drum sets, tuned percussion and quadruple brass. This assault slowed and sped up, forcing the ear to concentrate on the passage and division of time, the pregnant silences as potent as the noisy chords. Eventually, Mr. Andriessen allowed melodic drones to penetrate the score, but always returned to the punching percussive chords.

The set for the first movement consisted of temporary white sheds, looking like a German stalag and patrolled overhead by three silent, white zeppelins. Their slow flight gave an audience the illusion of even greater space for the drama. The sheds and blimps were also used as projection surfaces for the opera's text, which was sung by a small choir dressed as Dutch burghers, declaring their independence from Spain.  Eventually, the sheds were lit in green and filled with workers hammering as hard and loud as possible on metal boxes along with the orchestra. (Gustav Mahler would be envious.) From a high pulpit, tenor Pascal Charbonneau sang the role of the scientist Gorelaeus, describing the theory of atomic structure as the chorus sang of the complex process of building wooden ships. Finally, the hammering made sense.

Mr. Andriessen follows his quasi-symphonic structure by giving a slow movement next. The sheds were shoved to the side to make way for what looked like a series of low hurdles bathed in unearthly green light. A scrim dropped in front of the audience, forcing the text of the work directly into the viewer's face as black-clad stagehands prepared the vast space for the Seventh Vision of the 13th century mystic Hadewijch, sung with hypnotizing, obsessive power by Evegeniya Sotnikova over the droning, sometimes lurching orchestra.

The third movement was much more entertaining. Here, double pendulums descended from the high ceiling, each supporting an LED disc that changed from red to blue to yellow to white. This movement, De Stijl was the work's Scherzo, using infectious jazz rhythms and dance to depict the inspiration that drove the geometric paintings of Piet Mondrian. Now on the opposite side of the house, the choir declaimed a text by the mathematician M. H. J. Schoenmaekers about the "pure straight line", the basis for Mondrian's rigid art. As the orchestra slid gradually away from the audience, dancers took the floor under the gyrating pendulums. Their spastic clockwork motion reminded one not just of Mondrian's kinetic Broadway Boogie-Woogie but (less comfortably) of the writings of Umberto Eco.

This brings us to the sheep. They were let loose at the start of the last movement, a slow, ascending pavane. 100 strong, these woolly artists charged forth from the back of the stage, a rumbling and refreshingly spontaneous sound among all this man-made worship of Dutch technology, religion and art. A lone zeppelin returned, its solitary guardianship reminding one of rural legends involving livestock and U.F.O.'s.The sheep even served as a sort of choir, their bleating competing with the woodwinds in an entirely unmusical way as the players gamely continued through the pavane. The audience tittered at their sheepish antics, reacting with favor when two ewes fought for dominance over a square foot of floor. Eventually the four-legged performers were replaced by an actress playing the French physicist Marie Curie read from her letters. Under stark light, the Curie letters ended the work, followed by a few parting shots from the orchestra.

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