The Dutch have their secrets. It's possible that Louis Andriessen's "De Materie," given its premiere in 1989 in Amsterdam, is not the first great Dutch opera. Perhaps a notable national Netherlands opera remains hidden in Holland, a moldy Baroque manuscript in a damp basement beside some canal.
But "Materie," which reached the West Coast for the first time Friday night in a commanding performance conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw as the culmination of the
"Materie" is Dutch for "matter." The opera's subjects are Dutch history, Dutch thought, Dutch art, Dutch science, Dutch shipbuilding, Dutch mysticism, Dutch eroticism and Dutch boogie-woogie. What's Madame Curie got to do with it? That's never quite answered, but she matters.
Clearly unconventional, "Materie" is written in four dissimilar parts. Netherlands Opera's stunning original production by
But what is not strange is that Dutch opera would get it first big boost from a Minimalist masterpiece. It so happens that Netherlands Opera (which recently changed its name to Dutch National Opera) commissioned Philip Glass' first "traditional" opera, "Satyagraha," in 1980, after having presented "Einstein on the Beach," his avant-garde collaboration with Wilson. In 1986, DNO was also one of the original companies to perform Glass' Rome section from Wilson's "the CIVIL warS," which the L.A. Phil aptly chose to run in tandem with its performance of "De Materie" last week to conclude its big Minimalist blowout.
The L.A Phil presentation was not, as the "CIVIL warS" performance the night before, staged. "Materie" is written for two singers, two reciters and an eight-member chorus, along with a chamber orchestra heavy with brass, winds, keyboards and percussion, Andriessen's being a hard-driving musical style. Also, as in "CIVIL warS," the singers were amplified, along with some slight electronic enhancement of the orchestra. But this time the sound was clean and effective.
A tragic event meant the chorus, the Crossing from Philadelphia, was only seven. One of its founders, Jeffrey Dinsmore, died April 14 of an apparent heart attack during a rehearsal in Disney. He was said to have been a wonderful tenor. That is easy to believe, because the bright sound of the Crossing on Friday night remained ardently angelic.
The Dutch pageantry is inescapable in the first part of "Materie," which opens with exuberant, incessant hammering of a chord over and over again in irregular rhythms. The Crossing dramatically intoned in Dutch a 1588 proclamation known as Plakkaat van Verlatinghe. This was a declaration of independence from the Spanish monarchy.
We then heard how ships were constructed in the 17th century from a Dutch manual. In between the 17th-century Dutch physicist Gorlaeus (the clarion solo tenor Alex Richardson) proposed an atomic theory in which matter is separated from essence.
"The Seventh Vision of Hadewijch," inspired by an orgasmic 13th-century religious text, becomes, in Andriessen's seductively seditious hands, the opera's extended, ever-so-slow, solo sex scene. Soprano Susan Narucki, who has long been associated with the role, was a Hadewijch of refined but unmistakable passion.
Each section of "Materie" can be performed separately, and the third, "De Stijl," a celebration of the abstract painter Piet Mondrian, has become an Andriessen hit. Here the chorus sings a text about the nature of the straight line. For this occasion, a performance artist who goes by the name Meow Meow left her seat in the audience next to the composer and pranced onstage telling poignant tales about Mondrian. The orchestra cooked; a pianist played a distant boogie-woogie off stage.
In the last section, Madame Curie (the Dutch actress Marlies Heuer) mourned her husband's death and mused on the impossibility yet necessity of going on with her work. Those once-hammered chords had become the basis for a long, deeply affecting pavane, during which the chorus sang: "Dream of beautiful death and eternal desire." Difficult as it must have been for the Crossing, the singers did not lose their composure. Bells in the orchestra tolled and tolled some more. Time seemed to slow but not stop.
"De Materie" is not tame music, and the L.A. Phil in the proper bold, proud spirit, did not tame it. Inevitably, the hall was not as full after two hours as it had been at the beginning.
But there could be no more striking way to blast open the two-week Minimalist lockbox than with this Dutch tool kit. And while the L.A. Phil returns to it regular programming, the Jukebox plays on. The first weekend of May brings a Glass extravaganza at UCLA and Boston Court in Pasadena.