Theatre of the World: A Grotesque Stagework in 9 Scenes (L.A. Philharmonic); The Impresario & First the Music, Then the Words (Pacific Opera Project)
By Myron Meisel
Certainly one of most substantial musical and theater events this year, the world premiere of Louis Andriessen’s Theatre of the World, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in Walt Disney Concert Hall for only two performances in May represents a prestigious coup for the orchestra and venue that will surely be more thoroughgoingly recognized and appreciated when it opens in Amsterdam in June at the co-producing Dutch National Opera.
The LA Phil and Andriessen, unquestionably the most significant Dutch composer of the postwar period, have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship, and gave the U.S. premiere in 2010 of his Dante opera La Commedia. Spending much of his career as a stylistic and thematic rebel, he remained ever restless, synthesizing disparate musical forms from the Renaissance to Baroque to minimalism to jazz to rock and virtually every other expressive category, choosing sometimes instead to let the elements stew in a comprehensive acceptance of multitudinous forms. At the same time, he has adopted assertive political stances, not always earnestly as much as ironically. His breakthrough work, Die Staat (1976), critically challenged the validity of the premises of Plato’s Republic while embracing its intellectual substance.
Something similar is afoot in this new work, so ambitiously abstruse that had I not arrived early enough to absorb John Henken’s essential program notes, I cannot imagine having been remotely prepared to remain (barely) astride this bucking bull of challenging ideas and obscure, antique references. Helmut Krausser’s libretto may just be the most confounding I’ve ever encountered, decked out with the added sensory overload of a complex mounting by director Pierre Audi. Décor and video arrive by way of the stop-motion masters Quay Brothers, brandishing their own brand of lapidary intricacy, not to mention the barrage of supertitles translating lyrics from Dutch, English, Latin, Spanish, German and Italian.
The opera concerns the largely forgotten German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (an aptly protean Leigh Melrose), an obsessive polymath who attempted to syncretize all human knowledge, scientific and artistic, into a grand scheme consonant with Catholic theology. This promethean enterprise, doomed to fail by dint of an epic application of what my math professors used to call “hand-waving,” nevertheless represents an heroic hunger to seek, absorb and comprehend the world within the limitations of our own blinkered capacities.
Through its nine esoteric scenes, the dying Kircher confronts a boy (Lindsay Kesselman), who is most certainly an incarnation of the Devil, but whom I also interpreted to be the philosopher himself. Kircher also consorts with his patron Pope Innocenzo XI, with whom he time travels to the Tower of Babel, and pines for his pure, platonic soul-mate, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Cristina Zavalloni, who is blessed with the most opulent arias). A menacing hangman and trio of witches also intervene, along with the dual-cast Steven Van Watermeulen as both Kircher’s publisher and his most skeptical critic. And for good measure, to supply the requisite sex unavailable to other characters, along comes a couple of secret lovers (affording Andriessen to indulge in some bemused flights of operatic conventionality). In the end, Voltaire, Goethe, Descartes and Leibnitz commemorate Kircher’s achievements, despite acknowledging his overweening deficiencies as a rationalist and his incapacity with the rudiments of scientific method.
Amidst all this cacophony of cerebral stimulation, Andriessen, now deep into his 70s, manages the trick of composing music of ever-morphing character, mimicking the protagonist’s compulsive collecting of information by confidently integrating a veritable encyclopedia of musical expression into a kaleidoscopic mélange.
As has been his custom, he demotes the strings from their established primacy to emphasize the woods and, in particular, the brass, and embellishes his sonic world with a panoply of exotic percussion. He also engages in astutely strident assaults of synthesizer and electric guitar. The amplification of the singers’ voices, while unorthodox by opera house standards, feels comfortable amidst the other electronic components. The composer’s steadfast conductor, Reinbert de Leeuw, makes sure all strands of composition, often operating in multiple realms at once, register clearly, making the most of the prime virtue of Disney Hall’s unforgivably superlative acoustic.
It’s all too polyglot and prolix to be considered a masterpiece, let alone accessible (Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times wrangled its perplexities only after the benefit of attending both performances). The show makes no concessions to audience friendliness, running straight through at 105 minutes without intermission, and wearing as a badge of honor the number of walkouts by flummoxed audience members.
For my part, it was mostly demanding bliss — rewarding in its ornery obscurity, Theatre of the World rigorously stays within the cultural framework of its protagonist, yet its music provides unmistakable links to our own metaphysical quandaries in an age where uncertainty is enshrined in our every measurement.
It made me mindful of how, when I attended the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, first-year students (never called freshmen!) were assigned to read Aristotle’s Physics, in spite of its scientific falsity, largely because it propounds the philosophical foundation for inquiry itself. As Physics might have been a bedrock for the science-to-come, Theatre of the World addresses our need to embrace the past in all its imperfections as an essential prelude to the progress of the future, with all its suppositional blindness and unrecognized prejudice. Andriessen embodies all this tragic and hapless inevitability with music of supple devilry and drollery.
Lacking the luxuriant trappings of the L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil has been more than competitive in its stagings of operatic premieres to grand dramatic impact. After The Tristan Project, Shostakovich’s Orango, Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Eötvös’s Angels in America, and now this excitingly gnarly piece, they have assumed a leadership position in our operatic community shared with Long Beach Opera. Notwithstanding rather sore logistical limitations, they produce vivid, memorable musical theater with considerable visual flair, while taking brilliant, calculated risks, none more daring than this defiantly intractable stunner.
Amadeus Re-Mix: Mozart and Salieri at It Again
Far more accessible and delightful, the recent belated local premieres of a matched pair of party operas by Pacific Opera Project (POP) recreated a competition commissioned by Emperor Josef II (“too many notes”) for a luncheon at the Vienna Palace in 1786. Billed, accurately, as “Mozart vs. Salieri,” and staged in the considerably less regal, institutionally generic confines of the South Pasadena Public Library, Mozart’s German-language Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was performed at one end of the floor. After intermission, chairs were turned around to face the other way for Salieri’s Italian-language Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the Music, Then the Words). Both opera buffa were set within the pre-production world of musical entertainment in the 18th century (recognizably similar to the 21st), their common purpose being to entertain as broad comedy set to high-toned if crowd-pleasing music.
Salieri won the day to the chagrin of Mozart although, in fairness, the very occupied genius had been summoned away, most probably, from work on Le Nozzi di Figaro and the three piano concertos he produced the same year. Consequently, there is a lot of spoken satirical burlesque of opportunistic producers, and merely a sublime overture and four first-rate arias to represent Mozart’s contribution. POP has long excelled at lowbrow physical comedy that reflects a broad take on the clownishness of the period, so what might have been unendurable stretches between musical interludes still ends up funny.
By contrast, Salieri’s work is more careful and thorough, although it too was inevitably somewhat dashed off. Here the conflict is between the composer and the librettist, each of whom regards their contribution as indisputably more important than the other. Both pieces take considerable pleasure in lampooning the demanding vanities of singers, although their numbers inevitably provide ravishing showcases for vocal virtuosity. All the singers prove amply capable of the pyrotechnic demands, the sopranos (Tracy Cox, Justine Aronson, Brooke deRosa and Karen Hogle-Brown) being particularly impressive — as was the artists’ intention.
As is its custom, POP aggressively adapts the texts and, more gingerly, the scores. The text-work is to maximize accessibility; adaption of the scores is to compensate for the reduced forces available (here essentially a string quartet plus additions). Company director Josh Shaw directs, designs and updates the titles for modern consumption, while Stephen Karr does the arranging and conducting honors. Not unlike Andriessen, they respect the neglected crannies of the past with relentless commitment to modernity.
Their next production will be their highest-profile one yet: a large-scale revival of their company-defining Star Trek-inflected parody of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio at the newly-renovated 1200-seat John Ford Anson Theatre across from the Hollywood Bowl on September 3.
Theatre of the World: A Grotesque Stagework in 9 Scenes, Walt Disney Concert Hall (closed)
The Impresario & First the Words, Then The Music, POP (Pacific Opera Project), South Pasadena Library (closed)