Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

No Laughing Matter

June 18, 2008

Cristina Zavalloni as Dante in La Commedia
Photo : Hans van den Bogaard 2008

The last stop on OutWestArts tour abroad this year was a second world premiere – this time with more confusing, yet definitely more enthralling results. The occasion was the new opera from Louis Andriessen, La Commedia, which is in its last few performances under the auspices of De Nederlandse Opera at the Carré Theater in Amesterdam. The opera is a very, very loose adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and also contains material from the Old Testament and other sources as well. The work comes billed as a “filmopera” and is a collaboration with American independent film director Hal Hartley who is making his debut as an operatic stage director. Andriessen has worked with film directors before including both Hartley and most notably Peter Grrenaway who provided libretti for two prior operas. Hartley provides filmed material for La Commedia featuring the cast that is projected on five different screens all hung at different heights and angles throughout the evening. But it is important to note that this is much more than Hartley simply interpreting musical material given to him by Andriessen. He is contributing as much narrative and thematic material as the composer and this is clearly much more of a collaboration than the single-author fantasy of operatic history will typically allow.

Andriessen and Hartley have taken the three basic characters on stage, Dante, Beatrice and Lucifer, and developed at least two different sets of competing narratives that are simultaneously played out by the live cast and the filmed elements. More confusingly, neither of these necessarily have much to do with Dante’s work. These include a television reporter who is hit by a car and dies, a chamber orchestra that appears to be alternately on the run or madly in love with one another, and some sort of political protest activity. On stage meanwhile, in addition to Dante’s activity, here voiced by the incredible Cristina Zavalloni, there is some sort of cat and mouse game going on between herself and the Lucifer character that is played out on a huge construction site set complete with mechanical lifts, a mobile elevated catwalk, several guys in hardhats, and foreman's offices at either side of the stage. The orchestra stalls have been removed to house the Schönberg Ensemble, the Asko Ensemble, and Synergy vocals who are further surrounded by another catwalk lit from underneath. Between the pit and the stage, which is filled with the largest of the film screens, is another pit filled with clear inflatable beach balls that could be the river Lethe, but might not be as well. There's a children's chorus at one point that performs a "satirical" song. I’d might be able to tell you more if my Dutch was better, but there is a part of me that doubts it.

In addition to Zavalloni, an excellent Claron McFadden plays Beatrice and Dutch film star Jeroen Willems plays the largely non-singing role of Lucifer. All of them clearly had as much invested in their acting as their vocals and were exciting to watch on both stage and screen often at the same time. Andriessen’s music is generally more accessible than it may have been in the past and seemed far less regal and demonstrative than in the preview of this material earlier this year by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He writes both for traditional orchestra instruments as well as electric guitars and drums, and there were references to many popular music genres throughout the work. With so much going on around it simultaneously, the music seemed more like another factor trying to compete for your attention, but I don't see that as a bad thing. The playing was excellent by the groups involved under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. Although I'm not completely convinced about all of this, I will say it was fun to watch and certainly had a number of striking images and themes to think about. Plus sometimes it's nice just to see something that isn't completely clear or digestible. Andriessen and Hartley's La Commedia is just that - something to think about.

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