Friday, June 17, 2016

Theatre of the World at the Holland Festival

Our visit to Amsterdam has coincided with the Holland Festival, a month-long cornucopia of theatre, music, dance and the performing arts. In fact, Neil Bartlett's Stella, about which I blogged in my previous post, is on its way here after its run at the LIFT Festival. Also part of the line-up here is a presentation of Tanzteater Wuppertal's Nelken, one of my favourite works by Pina Bausch. Alas, it has been sold out for months and has a waiting list in the triple digits.

But there is plenty else to see, and so last night Richard and I were part of the audience at the wonderfully baroque Koninklijk Theater Carre, on the banks of the Amstel River, to take in a new opera by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Theatre of the World, which had its premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month, is a co-production between the Holland Festival and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Its subject is the seventeenth-century German polymath and Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher, who has been equated with Leonardo da Vinci, and whose treatises on everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Chinese history to geology to the transmission of bacteria made him one of the most read minds of his day, but who fell out of favour with the rise of rationalist thinkers like Voltaire and Descartes (both of whom make an appearance in the opera).

Andriessen and librettist Helmut Krausser present Kircher's life essentially as a take on the Faust story, a conflict between the pull of his faith (Pope Innocent XI is a key figure) and the pull of knowledge. In the quest for the latter Kircher (a superb Leigh Melrose, in a lusty and intensely physical performance) is accompanied by a boy (a trousered Lindsay Kesselman, who has a gloriously rich mezzo) and is frequently prompted/taunted by a narrator figure played by Steven Van Watermeulen in a non-singing role, and who according to the program is meant to be an amalgam of Kircher's contemporaries Jan Janssonius, a Dutch cartographer, and Raffaele Fabretti, an Italian lawyer and antiquarian. There's also an executioner, three witches, and a Mexican nun, Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, with whom Kircher corresponded and, it's suggested in this production, was secretly in love. The Italian soprano Cristina Zavalloni plays the latter role, often suspended in a picture frame upstage, and to my mind steals the show with her amazingly pure soprano. (Side note: all of the singers appeared to be miked, which I thought was a bit strange given the intimacy of the venue. This technical decision actually caused a bit of a problem last night, as Melrose's mic kept crackling at various moments and eventually had to be replaced by two stagehands, an unavoidable break in the fourth wall that was accommodated with patience by audience and performers alike, and that did nothing to diminish the overall impact of the show.)

All of this is exuberantly directed by Pierre Audi, with an expressionistic and psychedelic set and video projections by the Quay Brothers. The Dutch National Opera was in fine form, handling Andriessen's incredibly eclectic and widely variant score with aplomb. This is the first opera that I've been to that opens with a solo fugue for the slide trombone and that incorporates an organ at several key moments. In this, the polyphony of Andriessen's musical arrangements seems to mimic the intellectual curiosity of Kircher himself. Whether this is intentional or not, Theatre of the World is a gripping new work and deserves to be widely seen.


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