De Materie
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In Review > North America

De Materie

Park Avenue Armory

In Review De Materie hdl 416
Heiner Goebbels’s staging of De Materie at the Park Avenue Armory
Photo by Stephanie Berger

I WASN'T PREPARED FOR THE SHEEP. Toward the end of Heiner Goebbels’s staging of De Materie, Louis Andriessen’s gargantuan 1988 music-theater piece, a flock of a hundred sheep made its way onto the floor of the Park Avenue Armory. The animals held the stage for many long minutes, moving in mesmerizing synchrony through the darkened expanse. The score for the sequence used the most minimal of minimalist gestures, consisting mostly of two chords, repeated in protracted alteration: it seemed less like music in itself than a distant echo of music played elsewhere. The combined effect was bewildering but beautiful, a spiritual emanation whose source was unknowable.

Truth to tell, De Materie resisted explication through much of its two-hour, four-movement length. Its libretto comprises a baffling variety of texts, sung by two soloists and an eight-person chorus (here, the excellent Chorwerk Rurh). Andriessen’s sources include the Dutch declaration of independence from Spain; a 1690 ship-building treatise; the writings of the seventeenth-century philosopher David van Goorle; the erotic, mystical verse of the thirteenth-century poetess Hadewyjch; the writings of the mathematician M.H.J. Schoenmakers and the letters of Marie Curie. The Armory’s program note explained that its four sections deal with “the way spirit relates to matter,” but it felt like the juxtaposition of disparate elements reflected less the pursuit of a cohesive argument than the composer’s intuitive assemblage of materials that intrigued him. 

Goebbels’s production, which originated at the 2014 Ruhrtriennale Festival and came to the Armory for on March 22 for the first of six performances, did little to clarify matters. But he and set designer Klaus Grünberg provided plenty of spectacular imagery. Miniature zeppelins floated above the proceedings, hauntingly. The second movement placed Hadewyjch (soprano Evgeniya Sotnikova), garbed as a nun, behind a scrim, standing in front of a field of unidentifiable human mounds; the vista had the still luminescence of a Dan Flavin installation. Andriessen’s strategy in this section resembles Bach’s in the chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” with a soaring, slow-moving vocal line set against a mobile orchestral fabric; the setting was an unerring visual embodiment of the music.

In Review De Materie hdl 2 416 
Photo by Stephanie Berger 

The third movement, inspired by the Dutch artistic movement De Stijl, proved the most exciting of the evening. Andriessen’s music, a dissonant boogie-woogie, had a complexity and drive we had not yet heard, thoroughly reflected in the stage action. Illuminated discs mounted on enormous double pendulums swung to and fro, creating their own counterpoint to Andriessen’s furious invention while evoking the paintings of Piet Mondrian. Soon a troupe of jitterbugging dancers joined them, led by two stalwarts, Gauthier Dedieu and Niklas Taffner, costumed as the Nicholas Brothers. The kinetic totality was both exhilarating and sinister; the spectacle was as close as I’ve ever come to seeing a Busby Berkeley number in the flesh. 

De Materie’s biggest misstep comes in its final minutes, given over to a (literally) prosaic presentation of Marie Curie’s letters. The scene transpires almost entirely in words—shakily delivered here by the actress and dancer Catherine Milliken—with the orchestra chiming in at the end to bring the damn thing to a close. I couldn’t divine its intellectual or aesthetic connection to all that had come before; moreover, the sequence was so unsatisfying, so lacking in resonance, that I felt no need to. 

The two vocal soloists were too heavily miked to glean much sense of their real qualities, but tenor Pascal Charbonneau tackled van Goorle’s strident declamations bravely, and Sotnikova’s voice, filtered through pop-music-like processing, was soothingly ethereal. Florian Bilbao provided the smashing boogie-woogie choreography. The top-notch band was an augmented configuration of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Peter Rundle was the able conductor.  —Fred Cohn 

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