Nonesuch Releases Andriessen's 'Film Opera'

Janos Gereben on May 13, 2014
Louis Andriessen
Louis Andriessen

It opens with street noise, which quickly segues into an off-balance ostinato with a limping cadence. The chorus enters with ghostly strains, which peak into a fortissimo. Individual voices are heard against the dissonant drone of the orchestra, a wordless high soprano emerges.

It's about four minutes into Part I of Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia and you already heard sounds reminiscent of a dozen different contemporary composers ... and yet something completely original.

Earlier this year, Andriessen's 75th birthday was celebrated lavishly everywhere except in San Francisco and the Arctic. Why organizations here, large and small, neglected him is a puzzle, but listeners have rich access to his music. Also, on June 10, Nonesuch Records will release La Commedia both on DVD and on a set of two CDs.

The "film opera" is a collaboration with Hal Hartley, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, with additional texts from the 16th-century German theologian Sebastian Brant, the 17th-century Dutch dramatist Joost van den Vondel, and the Old Testament’s "Song of Songs."

Cristina Zavalloni in <em>La Commedia</em>, at the weeklong Andriessen celebration in Washington Photo by Drew Angerer
Cristina Zavalloni in La Commedia, at the weeklong Andriessen celebration in Washington
Photo by Drew Angerer

The Dutch National Opera production features the Asko and Schönberg Ensembles, led by Reinbert de Leeuw, with vocal soloists Claron McFadden (Beatrice), Cristina Zavalloni (Dante), Jeroen Willems (Lucifer/Cacciaguida), and Marcel Beekman (Casella). The children’s choral parts are sung by Waterland’s Kinderkoor De Kickers, conducted by Jan Maarten Koeman. According to Andriessen:

The simultaneous existence of heaven, purgatory, and hell; parallels between various scenes; and the use of film and stage effects all create the complexity that is necessary to do justice to Dante’s greatest creation. To this end, all events portrayed on the film screen and on stage, including dance, the spoken word, and song, should be regarded as a reaction to the music.

La Commedia premiered in 2008 in Amsterdam before receiving concert performances at Disney Hall, Carnegie Hall, and, most recently, at the National Gallery in Washington this spring as part of a week-long Andriessen 75th birthday festival. Among critical praise, this from the New Yorker:

Even for a composer who admires both Bach and Chaka Khan, the stylistic frame of reference in La Commedia is staggeringly wide, ranging from Gregorian chant to what might be called Satanic Broadway ... Hell and Heaven run together in a wild continuum.