OPERA - CONTEMPORARY OVERSEAS - VERMEER
to print out this review than to chase up photocopy of published version
require risks and co-commissioning a new opera is to be on the high wire
without a net. Minus the brand-label 'Peter Greenaway, Director'
attached to a proposal to write an opera, would Fauldings have sponsored
Writing to Vermeer as the capstone for the Adelaide Festival?
fact that more publicity attaches to Greenaway as librettist and
co-director than to Louis Andriessen as composer reverts to the origins
of opera 400 years ago when Venetians valued designers above musicians.
The work started from eighteen letters invented by Greenaway and attributed to the wife, mother-in-law and model of the 17th-century Dutch artist, Jan Vermeer. There are no replies. When Greenaway got funding for his first feature film, The Draughtsman's Contract, the producer stipulated that the characters converse with each other. What a pity that Festival Director Robyn Archer did not impose that requirement before this opera premiered in Amsterdam last December.
claims to set images to music, not music to words. Yet he suffers from a
curious malady for he cannot hold his ink. Indeed, he leaks from every
orifice, flooding stage and screens with ink, milk, varnish, blood and
Greenaway's obsessions have long included Vermeer, the forgery of whose paintings informed his second feature film, A Zed and Two Noughts. Greenaway welcomes Vermeer as a proto-photographer because his art captured light in a split second.
to Vermeer is another celebration of the serenity and harmony that the
librettist-director claims dominate the twenty-six or so canvases
attributed to the artist. According to Greenaway, Vermeer's images
'betrayed nothing of the political turmoil' in the world beyond their
domestic settings. This interpretation is cockeyed. The paintings are
replete with soldiers and a commerce in paintings, pearls and
pulchretude. War and barter are thus inside Vermeer's picture frames but
barred from the household portrayed on the opera-stage. There, the
trained killers and traders are reduced to filmed backdrops, directed by
the co-director, Saskia Boddeke, whose contribution remains the subject
of sisterly sniping.
the military and merchants portrayed by Vermeer appear at all in the
opera we owe to the Dutch composer, Louis Andriessen, a Sixties radical
who turned sixty last year. He suggested opening up the invented
correspondence through windows onto the crisis that was the Seventeenth
Century, right across Europe. Although Greenaway incorporated assaults
on the safe interior, the separation of the domestic from the public on
stage means that tension cannot grow out of the action.
course, history in the form of financial crashes and invasions falls out
of the sky on most of us as we go about our everyday affairs. A refusal
to participate in the political has never secured a house as a castle
against the outrages of fortune. Bombs drop on the activist and the
apathetic alike. In Writing to Vermeer, these shocks are represented
through an excess of stock devices. Their quantity highlights the
directors' want of the historical sensibility required to render the
political as personal.
the production was predictable, the music was as surprising as it was
delight-filled. Andriessen's orchestration gained attention with its
opening delicacies and deepened this interest through a melodiousness
constructed on complexities which never sacrificed clarity as it wove in
variations on tunes by the seventeenth-century Dutch composer, Jan
Sweelinck. The score's structure pays homage to a playfulness in John
Cage and at the same time advances Andriessen's argument with that
American's statics and silences.
eruptions of violence that Andriessen proposed are accompanied by an
electronic track devised by his erstwhile student, Michel van der Aa.
53-piece orchestra is weighted towards bowed strings, supplemented by
eight more stringed instruments to be either struck or plucked, from
piano to guitar. The whole resulted in a radiance as ravishing as
Ravel's. Its revelation was possible because the Adelaide Symphony
Orchestra could respond to Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw's
experience with Andriessen's music.
selected the words to set from Greenaway's faked letters. Had the
composer written his own libretto he might have found a more expressive
vocal line, which is the only weak element in the music. With more drama
in the text, the three women could have more distinguishable. Instead,
the two sopranos and a mezzo, who also performed at the premiere, are
drowned in the score, a loss only partly attributable to the
characteristics of their voices.
centuries, opera have included ballets. Writing to Vermeer is remarkable
for doubling the principal singers with dancers throughout.
Choreographers will find inspiration here, and we all can look forward
to an orchestral suite.