Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Between Heaven and Hell

April 14, 2010

Louis Andriessen and Reinbert de Leeuw
Photo: mine 2010

Tuesday brought the U.S. premiere of Louis Andriessen’s expansive, genre-bending opera La Commedia to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. Boy, were we lucky to have it. Andriessen's take one Dante’s Divine Comedy actually has a pedigree here in L.A.; two of the five acts in the piece had prior performances on this very stage – Act II, Racconto dall'Inferno, as part of the 2006 Minimalist Jukebox festival, and Act I, The City of Dis or:The Ship of Fools, by the L.A. Master Chorale in 2007. The full work had its premiere in a fantastic production during the 2008 Holland Festival where the live performance was augmented with a production conceived by American film director Hal Hartley. Then, Andriessen's score was accompanied by a film with a completely different narrative made by Harley that ran intermittently throughout the performance on one of a number of screens hanging at various angles around the Amsterdam hall. That performance, one of my personal highlights of the last few years, created a circus like atmosphere of sensory overload with images and sounds coming from all sides. Tuesday’s performance in L.A., which included the almost identical ensemble from Amsterdam, was a wonderful chance to revisit the work, this time in a concert performance that allowed a fuller appreciation of its complex and interesting score on its own substantial merits.

Marcel Beekman, Jeroen Willems, Claron McFadden, and Cristina Zavalloni
Photo: mine 2010

Andriessen revisits Dante’s trip to hell and back in a format that is preoccupied neither with plot or character development. There is direction however as Dante moves through the horrors of hell into the Garden of Earthly Delights and finally paradise in the five acts in La Commedia. The multi-lingual text is taken from numerous sources including Dante with various roles assigned to a cast of four soloists and two choirs. The music is a polyglot that gleefully moves from foreboding and dissonant to cheekily dabbling in any number of contemporary popular musical styles. As we get closer to paradise, tongue-in-cheek jazz and Latin rhythms appear in the music and in the end, everything begins to shine and twinkle. The ASKO/Schönberg Ensemble under the direction of Reinbert De Leeuw produced a formidable and piercing sound in a score that at times recalled a Charlie Kaufman screenplay with dizzying changes of direction and context. Synergy Vocals and the L.A. Children’s Chorus provided clear and assured backing throughout. The soloists were all spectacular and each performed from substantially different technical perspectives. Claron McFadden, who played Béatrice, a sort of guardian angel, is a well known opera performer in Europe whose interest in Baroque and contemporary repertoire have deprived her of a deserved large following in the U.S. Her clear and piercing tone was set against the unique vocal gymnastics of Cristina Zavalloni who dominated the stage with her sexy, dramatic Dante. Zavalloni has made a number of appearances in L.A. over the years, and as before, it was impossible not to watch her with nearly awe-struck admiration. She is the kind of performer who makes me want to use words like "elemental" in her description. Actor Jeroen Willems lends his movie star looks and a supremely sardonic attitude to the mostly spoken role of Lucifer. His closing monologue, Cacciaguida, was delivered in English instead of his native Dutch and was an absolute hoot. Andriessen’s devil gets all the laughs in La Commedia and Willems harangued lord of the underworld was a perfect complement to his costars and the score. The cast was rounded out by the brief, but memorable appearance of Marcel Beekman as Casella.

Andriessen received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience at the conclusion of the intermissionless two hours. He may not fit easily into one of the boxes composers often are forced into, but he is a lion of contemporary music and showed why with this amazing and ambitious two hour trip through the underworld. The only sad note in the evening is how little effort and heart the L.A. Philharmonic, who sponsored the evening’s performance, put into promoting this show, perhaps the most important piece of new(er) music in their entire season. There was zero stage or pre-performance presence by anyone from the organization and nary an advance word about the show outside of some random tweets earlier in the day and the standard e-mails. Apparently a few bucks could not be squeezed out of the budget after the three-quarters of a million dollars spent to fete the arrival of their new boy-blunder, Gustavo Dud-amel earlier in the season. Apparently Andriessen falls short in the “Electrico” department. But you wouldn’t know that by actually listening to his spectacular music, and the substantial crowd at WDCH on Tuesday reaped the benefits of seeing a major work from one of the most important living composers.


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