ANDRIESSEN :La Commedia (CD and DVD)
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ANDRIESSEN: La Commedia (CD and DVD)

spacer McFadden, Zavalloni; Willems, Beckman, Asko Ensemble, Schönberg Ensemble, de Leeuw. Film: Hal Hartley, director. No libretto or subtitles. Nonesuch 534877-2

CommediaDVD

The DVD component of this release is billed as a film by Hal Hartley. Also in the package is a two-CD recording of Andriessen’s score. The opera involves Dante’s Divine Comedy, with Beatrice (soprano), Dante (mezzo) and Lucifer (tenor) as the main characters. In Hartley’s film, Dante becomes a journalist, Beatrice is some sort of diplomat or royal princess, and Lucifer seems to be the owner of a construction company or a nuclear plant. These singers appear in both the stage production, documented here in a performance in Amsterdam in 2008, and in Hartley’s film, which is in black-and-white, and which forms a near-constant backdrop to the staging. In the film only, we also see a group of itinerant musicians, who are initially busking in the street, then subjected to police harassment and ultimately run out of town. The intersecting between stage and film is beautifully handled in the DVD. It represents a huge advance over an early example of the technique, the DVD of the Peter Sellars production of John Adams’s El Niño

The score, five movements of about twenty minutes each, is enormously attractive. Andriessen’s music shows the influence of Messiaen in rhythm and melody, though the harmonic sense is pared down. Single-line melodies scamper in low registers, the piano is used not as a solo color but as an intensifier of string attacks, and every so often the tangy and wiry tone of the cimbalom adds an alien touch. At the end of the first movement, a Wagnerian passage for high, unaccompanied violins leads to a video press conference, and for the first time, in a fine directorial touch, the onstage actors interact with the film. The opera is something of a Mahlerian symphony; it even ends with a children’s chorus that reminds us how far we’ve traveled. The fourth movement is the scherzo, involving a bit of sleazy after-hours jazz, a quick parody of “Clair de lune,” a Respighi-like Italian song, and finally a bittersweet waltz that frosts the cake. It’s as if Mahler had scored a Fellini film. 

In the Lucifer/Captain of Industry role, Jeroen Willems is a striking actor on film, especially in a late, long drunken monologue, and a tireless, almost acrobatic performer onstage. (Paul Clay’s set design involves mobile hydraulic lighting bridges and a pit of giant translucent exercise balls, perhaps representing environmental damage, and Willems plunges into it at one point.) Cristina Zavalloni sings Dante’s music, including a Euro-pop ballad, in a sultry alto. Claron McFadden is a pure-voiced Beatrice. In Hartley’s film, Dante is killed in a car accident but revived by Beatrice’s singing. McFadden makes this plausible. 

Thirty years ago, opera on video was rare, and it came only for your VCR. Opera videos playing on a wall of TV screens on the stairway to the basement of the Lincoln Center Tower Records would stop traffic for extended periods. Now we automatically expect opera to come with video, and we take it for granted. Hartley’s film, crisply and elegantly produced, might get people to stop in their tracks again. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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