Easier to print out this review than to chase up photocopy of published version in Bulletin

Festivals 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?

The 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.

Greenaway 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 water.

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.

Writing 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.

That 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.

Of 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.

If 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. 

The eruptions of violence that Andriessen proposed are accompanied by an electronic track devised by his erstwhile student, Michel van der Aa.     

The 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.

Andriessen 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.

For 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.