Writing to Vermeer (17 October)

Writing to Vermeer [UK premiere; concert performance with slides]

Saskia – Barbara Hannigan
Catharina – Susan Narucki
Maria – Susan Bickley

Deborah May – projections
Charles Balfour – lighting
Sound Intermedia

Synergy Vocals
New London Children’s Choir
Michel van der Aa – electronic music

London Sinfonietta
Reinbert de Leeuw

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 17 October, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

To close “Passion: The Music of Louis Andriessen”, this was the first performance in this country of Andriessen’s operaticcollaboration with Peter Greenaway, premiered in the Netherlands in 1999.

In a pre-concert talk, the composer disarmingly announced that this was an opera where “nothing happens” which is perhaps not the most auspicious thought when encountering a dramatic work for the first time. He went on to explain that the premise of the opera was the three women in Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s life writing letters to him during his absence, but also expressing their unwritten thoughts about him. Andriessen clarified that “domestic serenity” was the ambience in which the women lived, but that the conflict and unrest in the “outside world” burst in from time to time. This is expressed musically and dramatically by short taped interludes prepared by fellow composer Michel van der Aa.

I was grateful for this introduction, as there was no synopsis provided in the programme. This was but one drawback in the presentation of this work that rendered proper appreciation and comprehension difficult. Although a printed libretto was supplied, the lights were dimmed during the performance and, furthermore, the words of the singers were well-nigh impossible to make out for most of the time. A screen behind the orchestra showed slides of Vermeer’s paintings occasionally and announced each letter – six from each of the women – but it was quite often blank. It would have been much more helpful to have the libretto projected.

Andriessen’s interviewer commented on the music being “quite soft”. I actually found it rather loud, with little variety of dynamics – at least in this performance. The music itself is, as ever with Andriessen, eclectic, drawing to some extent on aspects of minimalism, but in this instance, he also uses keyboard works by Sweelinck to create an appropriate Renaissance atmosphere. Additionally, he requires the strings, from time-to-time touse ’authentic’ bowing and playing techniques including the absence of vibrato. These passages were very effective. But there seemed to me to be frequent occasions where the music and libretto were completely unmatched. The accompaniment appeared to be describing moments of great importance, whereas the text was dwelling on trivialities. There was an incredibly powerful and portentous orchestral passage leading to the text “It’s all women that you paint” – and onewas left wondering why.

It was almost as if Greenaway and Andriessen were writing two different pieces, and with prosaic phrases such as “I have never seen a child so anxious not to wear yellow” and “Do you think it could be the dye irritating her skin?” one wondered where the composer found the inspiration to set this libretto.

However, I think it unfair to pass final judgement on the opera given the flawed nature of its presentation on this occasion.The singers, as I have indicated, were not able to project their words – in spite of amplification – and even when I strained my eyes to peer at the libretto in the dark, it was still very difficult to make out what was being sung.

What was clear, however, was the soloists’ commitment to the work and their characters. Barbara Hannigan fervently sang Saskia, a model. The part lies cruelly high and Hannigan did her utmost with the material. She also had a welcome moment of relief in the singing of Sweelinck’s ’Mein junges Leben hat ein end’, accompanying herself on the harpsichord and subsequently musing in an unaccompanied passage. Susan Narucki as Catharina (Vermeer’s wife) was evidently attempting to delineate her character, and Susan Bickley was perhaps the most impressive of the three as the rather badgering mother-in-law.

The parts for two children were taken chorally – and excellently – by members of the New London Children’s Choir and the blend between them and the women’s voices of Synergy Vocals was good. Indeed some of the choral passages proved to be the highlights – one strikingly reminiscent of The Cries of London’ by Luciano Berio (Andriessen’s one-time teacher) and another with echoes of John Adams’s Harmonium.

In some ways the most dramatic moments came in the short taped interludes depicting the world outside the cosy domesticity of the household. Michel van der Aa skilfully combined orchestra and choral music with sounds such as water running and a crowd rioting, but the result and deployment in the drama was remarkably similar to the procedure adopted by Stockhausen in Montag aus Licht.

I can imagine a gentler, more affectionate orchestral performance than that given by Reinbert de Leeuw, who nevertheless conducted with point and efficiency. This experience of a new opera where nothing happens and where the singers could not be properly heard and with no possibility of following the libretto left this listener floundering.

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