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Gabriel’s Satanic Trombones

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/15/2010 -  
Louis Andriessen: La Commedia (New York premiere) based on Commedia, called later Divina Commedia, by Dante Alighieri

Claron McFadden (Beatrice), Cristina Zavalloni (Dante etc), Jeroen Willems (Lucifer etc), Marcel Beekman (Casella)
Anke Brouwer (Soundscape), The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun (Director), Synergy Vocals, Asko|Schönberg, Reinbert de Leeuw (Conductor)

L. Andriessen (© Francesca Patella)

Who but that fearless Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen would have the maximal temerity to take that mastodonic tale of God and Satan, cosmologies, epiphanies, theologies and a Cindy Adams-style gossip column of 14th Century Florence and turn it into an opera?

Yes, the poet has been done before, the most complete being Liszt’s Dante Symphony. One other opera (Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) and one symphonic poem (Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, as well as Liszt’s piano pieces make up the “serious” Dante adaptations.

Mr. Andriessen, though, by taking sections of Commedia, adding sections from the Song of Solomon, a Dutch poet, and the recruiting text for a Dutch mock-sex society, set himself a task which even he would admit was impossible.

The version last night was based on the original concept of Commedia as opera with film. This had been staged in the Netherlands. We in New York saw a staged version with exactly the same music.

I would say it was more a partly staged 100-minute oratorio. The program contained the whole libretto (though few in Carnegie Hall read it), as well as a potted synopsis of the five sections. But none of that really succeeded in making comprehensible the tortured story. For the most part, the audience sat through the blasting, towering Great Wall of Music, with little understanding of what was supposed to happen, but enjoying the audacity of it all.

(About three-dozen folk noisily left during parts of the performance, mainly during the “Inferno” sections. That was pretty dumb, since Hell’s music is hardly supposed resemble Céline Dion ditties, so one wonders what they were expecting.)

The three sections of the “Inferno” are supposed to be as loud as satanically possible, and for this, Mr. Andriessen was well-prepared. The evening began with an electronic soundscape of murmuring unhappy voices, but that immediately was shusshed out by the sounds of Andriessen’s mammoth orchestra.

Actually, the orchestra may not have been huge, though, unlike Andriessen’s usual ensembles, it was fairly conventional. But one hardly would have noticed the string section, since the bass brasses literally shouted out the poor violins. Referred to in the libretto once as “the trombones of Gabriel”, that was an apt description of the hellish voices blatting through Carnegie Hall (and sending the meek part of the audience scurrying like rats through the doors.)

There was far more to hear. Mainly that extraordinary Claron McFadden, a soprano whose range may be enormous but who sung almost entirely in the topmost areas For her second of two arias, she was constantly above high C, taking it easily above the orchestra, and singing as lyrically as in any ordinary aria.

She, as Beatrice, who leads Dante into the Inferno, was the Mother of us All, standing on a platform in the back, dressed in sheer white. More dramatic, though was Cristina Zavalloni, playing the female Dante (sic), and other roles. But this was more than singing. A jazz singer and modern dancer, Ms. Zavalloni slinked over the stage, raised her arms up and down like a Korean shaman, lay down, and slinked back off.

And no, I didn’t know what it was for. To read the libretto simultaneously would have been to miss the performance. And she was quite wonderful.

R. de Leeuw (© Asko|Schönberg)

Those first three sections encompassed layer upon layer of orchestral writing, some of it electronically amplified, as were the singers at times. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw, the Music Director of Asko|Schönberg, is accustomed to presenting only contemporary music with his great band, and he made the most clamorous sections sound almost transparent.

When the small adept chorus, Synergy Vocals, introduced Lucifer himself, we heard Andriessen’s equivalent of Satan in a lyrical song by actor Jeroen Willens (who I remember from Oceans Twelve).

The clamor came to an end with the fourth section, entitled “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (supposedly Purgatory). This was like a reflection of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, with quotes from many another composer. “Clair de lune” was obvious, as well as a section from Carmina Burana.

But the main element was another Andriessen specialty, jazz. This was not free jazz at all, but Leonard Bernstein-styled highly controlled jazz. Syncopated rhythms, brass oom-pahs, and Ms. Zavalloni doing some nightclub Anita O’Day style riffs. After the blasting three movements, this was….well, not a relief, but a difference.

The most complicated movement started with a harp solo, and we could well have been entering heaven. Except that even heaven has its wretched people, in this case one Signor Cacciaguida, acted (not sung) by Mr. Willens.

This was Dante the crazy gossiper in Heaven. For Signor Cacciaguida played out Dante’s revenge against families he didn’t like. All the notables of Florence were mentioned, gossiped about, fretted about, scorned……

And then Commedia came almost to a close. We had some surprises. We had works of light from the chorus, more light from Ms. McFadden in her most ethereal highest ranges.

And Mr. Andriessen finished with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus singing a brilliant–and very appropriate–chorus direct from Dante: “These are my notes for you, and if you do not get it, you won’t get the Last Judgment, you will never get it, ever.”

Frankly, I didn’t get it. I loved the audacity and the energy, and loved the vocalizing, the chorus and above all this orchestra, surveying jazz as well as chaos. But then, perhaps “understanding” Commedia defeats the purpose. We went through deafening Hell, danced through Purgatory, and by the time we came to Paradise, we’d experienced another Andriessen creation.

To paraphrase Dante, “Abandon reason (but hope for understanding), all of us who entered here.”

Harry Rolnick



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