AMSTERDAM -- For the fourth time, Louis Andriessen, the prominent Dutch composer who still likes to think of himself as anti-establishment, has tried to write an anti-opera, and for the fourth time, he has failed.
“I’m not sure I’d call ‘La Commedia’ an opera,” filmmaker Hal Hartley wrote in the program book for the new work, produced by Netherlands Opera and given the last of six performances here Wednesday night as part of this year’s Holland Festival. Maybe Hartley, who directed “Commedia” and created a cinematic component for the staging, wouldn’t, but I would. In fact, I’d call this profoundly moving, if slyly unsentimental, meditation on life, love and death a great opera. Loosely based on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” it is Andriessen’s “Italian” opera and has the depth, musical richness and (I predict) lasting power of late Verdi.
The shorthand for Andriessen is that he’s an urban, confrontational Minimalist who has been mentor to the post-Minimalist generation, including the Bang on a Can crew. “Commedia” certainly includes grim, grimy urban elements. Moreover, the composer did his best to overthrow operatic trappings.
As with his terrific earlier operas -- “De Materie,” “Rosa” and “Writing to Vermeer” -- “Commedia” was written for Netherlands Opera, but this time Andriessen chose not to work in the company’s opera house, Het Muziektheater. Instead he envisioned a “film opera” for the unconventional Koninklijk Theater Carre, a former circus venue a few blocks up the Amstel River that has been converted into a striking performance space.
In the pit, strident winds, brass and pounding percussion dominated a handful of strings to form what Hartley dubbed “The Terrifying Orchestra of the 21st Century.” Expert amplification of solo singers and small chorus, along with superb electronic effects by Anke Brouwer, contributed a high-tech aura to the sound. The libretto is an assemblage of texts from “Divine Comedy” along with bits of the Old Testament, old Dutch folk songs and the 17th century Dutch writer Joost van den Vondel’s “Lucifer” thrown in for good and/or diabolical measure.
Andriessen has one synopsis of the five scenes; Hartley, a second. As the composer sees it, the action begins in the City of Dis, Dante’s city of the dead in the sixth circle of hell. The characters are Dante (the remarkably versatile Italian bel canto/jazz/new music singer Cristina Zavalloni), Dante’s beloved Beatrice (the ethereal soprano Claron McFadden) and Lucifer (the Dutch actor Jeroen Willems, who appeared in “Ocean’s Twelve” and happens to be a powerful vocalist). Lucifer has a midlife crisis or three (rather like the real-life Dante). Beatrice is the voice of beauty and of the beyond. Dante gets run over by a car (don’t ask). We end in a Paradise of harps and plucked percussion. Lucifer, in a moment of astonishing tenderness, fixes the skirt of the dead Dante. Children sing a delicious song.
Paul Clay’s set was hell as a construction site, with a lot of clear plastic beach balls (again, don’t ask) and a hydraulic crane on which Beatrice could sing as if from on high and on which Lucifer could freak out. The orchestra was dressed as workers in overalls.
The backdrop was a large screen on which Hartley projected a film most of the time, although occasionally it was used as a kind of flat cyclorama of colored backdrops. Hartley’s story is complicated. Dante is a lady television journalist; Beatrice, a political figure of some importance who tools around in an ominous BMW. A host of other characters shows up, including Maria and Lucia. There is smooching on the canals and a scene in which Willems at a bar disses Florence. Four smaller screens were lowered in various positions for various different scenes at various times, providing a lot to look at.
But most important, there was a lot to listen to. Andriessen’s music is often forceful and driving, which is his characteristic style, especially in the first two scenes, both of which have been done in concert in Los Angeles. The second, a tour de force for Zavalloni, was a hit at the L.A. Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox festival in 2006. The City of Dis (short for Disney?) scene was a commission by the Master Chorale, which premiered it this past season.
But these just hinted at the humor, the ingratiating jazziness, the terrible fury and, in the end, the ravishing grace of the later scenes. Andriessen finished the opera earlier this year as his wife, Jeannette, lay dying from a debilitating illness. The opera, which is dedicated to her memory, is what happened when the hippest, sassiest, most savvy major composer we have dealt with the most meaningful moment of his life and left nothing out.
The orchestra included members of Amsterdam’s two best new music groups, Asko and the Schonberg Ensemble. The choir, which remained in the pit, was the vocal ensemble Synergy. Reinbert de Leeuw conducted. The performance was breathtaking, down to the kids with dirty faces who sang like angels (De Kickers Children’s Chorus).
“La Commedia” is an opera that should be seen again, and it will be. Netherlands Opera has filmed the performances and has asked Hartley to create a video version for DVD.