The Hemidemisemi-Monde

Dan Albertson

[May 2016.]

[Thank you, Lisa White; many thanks to you too, Robert Worby, for your fount of accounts; apologies, L. A. friends, for avoiding you; and hurray to anyone who understands the titular pun.]


Louis ANDRIESSEN: Theatre of the World, grotesque in 9 scenes and epilogue (2013-15, libretto by Helmut Krausser). Main parts: Leigh Melrose, Lindsay Kesselman, Marcel Beekman, Cristina Zavalloni, Steven van Watermeulen; secondary parts: Mattijs van de Woerd, Timur, Tim Gonzales, David Castillo, Scott Graff, Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, Ingeborg Bröcheler, Martijn Cornet, Nora Fischer; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Reinbert de Leeuw (cond.); Pierre Audi (stage dir.); Quay Brothers (décor, video); Florence von Gerkan (costumes); Wijnand van der Horst (lighting designer); Klaus Bertisch (dramaturgy); Frans Willem de Haas (associate dir.). World première, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA, May 6, 2016.

My enthusiasm for Louis Andriessen, documented here and here in 2009, remains intact. As the link between American and European currents and subcurrents in the 1970s and ’80s, he created an output that few would dispute is of immense significance. Recent years have seen continued fecundity yet a growing sense that his most creative days were behind him. This new stage work is, alas, proof that the fear is justified.

The first problem is the narrative, or series of narratives. No summary could be adequate, or terse. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, his varied books and adventures, make solid fodder for a spectacle. Here he is rendered as a chaste and frustrated fanatic, with tics; a tendency to gesticulate; an uneasy and unexplained relationship with a 12-year-old boy, later revealed to be the Devil incarnate; a platonic transatlantic bond with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; a few crises of conscience; and no uncertainty of his achievements. As scenes and locations change, and secondary characters appear and disappear, or are killed off, no thread binds the proceedings. Andriessen has never shied away from confounding or from being discontinuous, true, and a lack of linearity is a virtue, but a good reason to care about these characters would have helped, as would a message with which to leave the hall. I ultimately have no idea what Andriessen wishes to convey or impart here. Is religion a help or a hindrance? What is the line between delusion and illusion? Is the pursuit of knowledge itself a noble goal? Is sexual expression, and its repression, the core of all adult life? Rhetorical questions, one and all.

The second problem is the libretto by Helmut Krausser, which is verbose and wears its erudition too heavily. Multilingualism in successive scenes would be sensible; moving among languages within a passage or a sentence, for no apparent reason, and often not in the original language, has the trappings of willfulness. Curious, too, that Latin is almost entirely absent and English is the primary language. The epilogue, in which four philosophers, two French and two German, praise Kircher and assure us that he will be remembered, is an anticlimax. I give credit to Andriessen, however, for managing to set some impossible passages about mathematics, and not for the first time.

The third problem is the music itself, particularly for the brass. The opening is a solo for trombone, the latest salvo in its lineage of musica pornographica, too prolonged and silly for its own good; later, and I wish that I were joking, I swear that I hear La Cucaracha, to repeated cries of “Ma in Egitto…”; and slow moments that, rather than displaying the intended nobility, resemble John Williams cast-offs. Andriessen also falls too often into the bad habit of giving bland ostinati to strings when all else fails. His usual trademarks, by now clichés, are also present, including low clarinets, metallic percussion and electric guitar. The jazz bits here are especially weak, even hackneyed, with none of the verve that one would expect.

The fourth problem is its visual presentation. The dramaturgy, such as it is, involves a lot of futile writhing, pushing and pulling on and around the stage for 115 mins. Characters are reduced to stock emotions: Their world is oddly small, bordering on miniscule. The costumes are comical, nigh cartoonish, perhaps unintentionally so. Doors beneath the screen allow for entries and exits at turning points. The screen itself shows the work of the Brothers Quay, though the film is not constant. Not much new there, to those who know and love their work. The images are often static and insubstantial, at times blurry and disorienting, at other times imbued with the charcoal hues of Redon.

Even so, the piece has its merits. Instrumentally, the highlights are a plangent sonority in flutes and oboes after the Dutch monologue, then the very end, when a solo flute gradually picks up accompaniment. As La Passione, finished in 2002, shows best, Andriessen has a natural affinity with Italian and, here at times, Spanish. Diction is generally strong, not easy in a piece with a quicksilver tongue. Andriessen regulars Beekman and Zavalloni are in fine form, though too often absent. Melrose, as anyone who has heard him sing Xenakis’ Aïs knows, has a convincing falsetto, which Andriessen exploits at times, including to great effect in a sleep aria of a sort early on. His voice is clear, though not always sitting atop an equal transparency in the orchestration. His acting is too emotive and too reductive for my taste. The youthful and ambiguous tone of Kesselman belies her character’s malfeasance. Van Watermeulen is persuasive in delivering his Dutch monologue, praising the 17th-century Dutch empire as the envy of the world at the time; he is otherwise the comic relief, commenting on various happenings.

Two excerpts from the libretto may be pertinent to close: “Geist ist alles / Fleisch ist nichts” is sung near the beginning. I wish for a lot more spirit here and less flesh, which is to suggest the triumph of invention over routine. Not long before the conclusion, I remember, “We must not have arrogance with regard to our predecessors.” Perhaps the predecessors here are the works of Andriessen’s own back catalogue. The ghosts are ubiquitous.


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