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ANDRIESSEN: Theatre of the World

CD Button Kesselman, Zavalloni, Houberg, Fetokaki, Bröchler; Melrose, Beekman, van de Woerd; Los Angeles Philharmonic, de Leeuw. Text and translation. Nonesuch 7559-79361-8 (2)

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Critics Choice Button 1015 

ATHANASIUS KIRCHER is one of the most puzzling figures of European history. The seventeenth-century German scholar claimed expertise in a veritable Wunderkammer of subjects—hieroglyphs, magnetism, subterranean oceans. But unlike the work of his fellow Renaissance men Leonardo and Galileo, most of Kircher’s “discoveries” were utterly useless or plain wrong: he drafted a map of Atlantis, invented a “cat organ” that drove sharp spikes into a poor feline to produce sound and devoted an entire volume to calculating the logistics of Noah’s diluvial Ark voyage.

For his latest opera, The Theatre of the World,Dutch composer Louis Andriessen selected Kircher as his antihero. Helmut Krausser’s libretto for this “theatrical grotesque” comes across as a cynical parody of those grand twentieth-century operatic monuments to Renaissance thinkers and artists— Pfitzner’s Palestrina and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Die Harmonie der Welt (which respectively dramatize the lives of Matthias Grünewald and Johannes Kepler). In a series of surrealistic, allegorical scenes, Kircher and his companion, Pope Innocent XI, are transported around the world by a mysterious Boy. As they journey through ancient Egypt, Babylon and China—locales associated with Kircher’s archeological and ethnological studies—the Boy forces Kircher to confront his pedantic pride, his imminent mortality and the all-too-apparent limits of his knowledge.

Andriessen is known for an aggressive brand of minimalism, which characterized his two other Renaissance-themed operas, Writing to Vermeer and his recent success La Commedia, a setting of Dante. For Theatre of the World, however, the composer tries out a softer, subtler version of his unrelenting musical language. It’s a welcome change from his works’ usual sensory overloads, though the score drags during its many bland transitional passages. Thankfully, Andriessen hasn’t abandoned the mischievous, pop-inspired numbers that make his music so marvelously catchy. Mechanical, bone-dry woodwind ostinatos straight from Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale are combined with boogie-woogie rhythms and jazzy walking bass lines. At the entrance of three Macbethian witches, the electric bass guitar and sax pick up a syncopated riff derived from the Champs’ 1958 mambo single “Tequila.” Elsewhere, there are more ecclesiastical references; two trombones play an austere paraphrase of the medieval Christmas carol “In dulci jubilo,” better-known in English as “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” The carol’s original macaronic text, alternating between Latin and German, extends into the opera’s multilingual libretto, which adds Italian, French, Spanish and English. This smorgasbord of languages and musical styles—reflected onstage by a hulking Tower of Babel set piece—becomes a fitting metaphor for the encyclopedic scope of Kircher’s all-embracing scholarship.

Steely-voiced baritone Leigh Melrose offers up a gruff, brutish portrayal of the pompous Kircher, snarling and spitting his way through a patter aria in which he lists a few of the scholar’s thousand impractical inventions. His character is haunted by a stilted death march, which follows him throughout the opera as closely as the nameless Boy, sung by Lindsay Kesselman. The soprano adopts a pop-leaning vocal delivery for the peppy musical-theater numbers Andriessen has written for her, including a West Side Story-style dance in 5/4 time. At the end of the opera, however, her pure, choirboy top notes take on a menacing quality as she reveals herself to be the Devil, to whom Kircher has sold his soul. The Boy’s more angelic counterpart is the Mexican scholar and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who, in real life, greatly admired Kircher. She serves as a kind of love interest for Kircher, singing him snippets of her enigmatic poetry from across the ocean in a series of nostalgic, Latin-tinged interludes. The role is filled by Andriessen’s regular collaborator Cristina Zavalloni, an Italian cabaret chanteuse whose husky, vibrato-less tone is well-suited to the composer’s sleek musical textures. 

Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw gives a particularly sultry reading of the score, unleashing the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s powerful brass section in blaring, big-band climaxes. It’s a shame this live recording doesn’t come with a DVD of the original production, which featured creepy little stop-motion animations by the Brothers Quay. —Joe Cadagin 



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