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Dutch master Louis Andriessen grew up in a family of composers, including his cathedral-organist father, an uncle, a sister, and an older brother who turned him on to American jazz as a teenager. He graduated from the Hague Royal Conservatory, where conductor Reinbert de Leeuw (who would become his longtime champion) was a fellow student. Andriessen then headed to Milan for a period of study with Luciano Berio – among the least doctrinaire of postwar avant-garde figures.

Something of Berio’s famously “omnivorous” appetite for music across the spectrum, as well as his vivid theatricality, was clearly instilled in the eager pupil. Andriessen specifically refers to Berio’s eclectic assemblage of texts for the pathbreaking cycle Epifanie (1961-1963) as a model for his approach to constructing La Commedia’s libretto.

Andriessen developed into a powerfully influential iconoclast himself, shaking up not just the traditional music establishment but the “official” modernism promoted by many of his peers. He began to explore a fascination with music theater in the Marxist “morality opera” Reconstructie – a radical collaborative venture from 1969 (and very much of the era). The piece was co-written by a composers’ collective that also included de Leeuw.

In the 1970s, when Minimalism was particularly scorned by his fellow European composers as anti-intellectual pop art, Andriessen adopted its techniques to evolve a style of his own. But this was Minimalism refracted through a uniquely colorful lens of Stravinsky, bebop, electronics, early music, R&B, and hard rock. These and other sources became equally legitimate parts of the diverse mix that Andriessen cultivated into a music of piquant dissonances and raucously pulsating energy.

A key aspect of Andriessen’s aesthetic is the desire to erase distinctions between “art music” and popular culture. Much of his work avoids classical performance conventions – for example, by favoring eclectic, amplified ensembles over the traditional orchestra. Andriessen’s earlier efforts often emulated the raw energy of jazz groups or rock bands. The performing ensembles he founded inspired groups such as the California E.A.R. Unit and Bang on a Can. In time, Andriessen became a Stockhausen-like guru, readily providing a bridge to the open-ended aesthetic of the “post-Minimalist” generation.

Andriessen’s international breakthrough came with De Staat, a piece scored for a characteristically unconventional ensemble of instrumentalists and singers. Completed in 1976, De Staat ironically subverts the texts it sets – taken from Plato’s argument in The Republic that music is dangerous for political stability – while crystallizing the composer’s innovative voice.

His work is marked by an ongoing preoccupation with music as a vehicle to explore substantive political and philosophical ideas. Andriessen combines this ambition with a flair for multi-media collaborations that continually reject what are, in his view, moribund conventions of consumerist spectacle inherited from the 19th century. De Materie, for example, which originated as a collaboration with avant-garde director Robert Wilson in the mid-1980s, takes on atomic theory, medieval mysticism, and the artist Piet Mondrian as part of its investigation into the connections between matter and spirit.

In the 1990s, Andriessen began an artistic partnership with Peter Greenaway, composing a score for the British director’s short video film M Is for Man, Music, Mozart. Their first opera together, ROSA: The Death of a Composer (1994), involves a strangely obsessive meditation on a fictional composer and his murder (inspired by a projected large-scale cycle on the actual violent deaths of composers from Anton Webern to John Lennon). Writing to Vermeer, Andriessen’s last opera before La Commedia, was another Greenaway collaboration and premiered in Amsterdam in 1999. Vermeer is based on an elusive scenario about the artist’s life in the year 1672. He is awaited, Godot-style, by the family he has left behind in Delft, but he never appears.

La Commedia shows a similarly elliptical approach to narrative and character, as well as Andriessen’s interest in juxtaposing live performance with film to fashion a new-fangled medium he refers to as “film opera.” This fourth of his operas (not counting the early, collectively written Reconstructie) developed as a collaboration with Hal Hartley, the acclaimed independent film director (Simple Men, Flirt, Trust, etc.). They began working together in 2000, when Andriessen wrote a score for Hartley’s short film The New Math(s). In 2003 they created Inanna, a theater piece using film, to which Hartley contributed a libretto drawn from ancient Sumerian myth.

Andriessen expresses an abiding admiration for Dante that goes back several decades. He even chose a quote from the Paradiso – “gazing on the point beyond which all times are present” – as a motto for De Tiijd (Time, 1981), his musical exploration of the philosophy of time. That phrase could well serve the same function for La Commedia. Much as Dante’s epic is encyclopedic in scope – a summa of medieval knowledge – Andriessen constructs a multi-layered opera that gathers the diverse threads of his career, drawing on a range of musical vocabularies and techniques, philosophical concerns, and self-definitions as an artist.

The composer prefers Dante’s original title – La Commedia – to the more familiar The Divine Comedy (the epithet “divine” wasn’t added until a couple of centuries after Dante wrote his tripartite epic). In an interview with David Allenby, Andriessen explains: “I view the text as being more concerned with our life on earth than with any afterlife, and Dante’s comic vehicle for this observation was irony, which really appealed to me. Irony is what generates the drama in my opera – a satirical view of heaven and hell in our everyday life.”

Everyday life is indeed present throughout Andriessen’s Commedia, but it becomes defamiliarized through the libretto’s polyglot mélange and through the unexpected stylistic jump-cuts of the score. While Andriessen follows the overall arc of Dante’s epic, from hell to heaven, he ignores the conventional operatic paradigms of linear narrative and realistic character psychology, for which he has never had any use. His libretto assembles texts from Dante’s epic – delivered, alternately, in the original Italian, in Dutch, and in English (as adapted by the composer) – but from other sources as well. Set alongside Dante’s excerpted cantos are snippets from the Old Testament, a medieval Dutch guild song, and dialog from the religious plays of 17th-century Dutch writer Joost van den Vondel.

This odd, episodic farrago enhances Andriessen’s central conceit of parallel worlds that merge together in the here and now. It has its counterpart, too, in Dante’s own multilayered cosmos, where different eras and time zones coexist and meet: Dantean intertemporality, for Andriessen, implies intertextuality. The opera’s five parts, which are roughly equal in length, follow the sequence Inferno-Purgatory-Paradise, although, architecturally, La Commedia seems weighted toward the nether regions (the topic of the first three parts).

Part One begins by depicting the folly (or wisdom) of those who seize the day and then introduces Dante’s characters. Beatrice requests guidance for the lost poet, who is just embarking on his perilous journey into hell with his pagan guide, Virgil. They are granted a horrific vision upon arriving at the City of Dis. In Part Two Dante alone gives a sardonic account of being helped by the devils to continue the infernal expedition. Lucifer takes the limelight in Part Three, which is set at the furthest reaches of hell. The passage to Purgatory leads to Part Four, which focuses on Dante’s own art as a poet in its celebration of the beautiful and the ugly. Andriessen imagines his Dante figure run over and killed by a car, after which he moves on to Paradise in Part Five, signaled by his Requiem. One of Dante’s ancestors interrupts the mood before Beatrice’s final, beatific words of wisdom.

Andriessen actually began composing La Commedia with two separately performed parts. Part Two (Racconto dall’Inferno) was the first to be written and was presented in 2006 in its U.S. premiere as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox festival. [A recording from those performances has been released by DG Concerts.] The Los Angeles Master Chorale commissioned The City of Dis (given its world premiere here in 2007), which then became Part One. Meanwhile, Hartley created a black-and-white film as part of his staging of the world premiere of La Commedia in Amsterdam in 2008. Its narrative involves a contemporary counterpoint, with a plot of its own, to the characters in the opera. The original production was conceived in the spirit of a site-specific performance for a vast theater that once housed circuses and used multiple film screens.

Whether accompanied by the film or semi-staged as a concert presentation, La Commedia reveals Andriessen’s preference for “singing actors” as opposed to “acting singers.” In fact, the first vocal music he wrote for the opera – in Racconto dall’Inferno – was tailored specifically for Cristina Zavalloni’s convention-defying vocal style. Andriessen remarks that her ability to produce “the right vernacular quality” is reminiscent of Cathy Berberian.

His casting of Claron McFadden, a baroque specialist who also sings gospel, as a pure-voiced Beatrice makes for a remarkable contrast of timbres. Dante is represented by several voice types throughout the opera, but the gender-twisting element of a female Dante suggests a wry nod at early music conventions. Indeed, Andriessen’s plot device of the car accident implies another dimension from operatic history: the ur-myth of Orpheus, though this time with Beatrice as the one sent to rescue her lover. Jeroen Willems, meanwhile, brings his background as a well-known film actor and as an interpreter of Jacques Brel to his representation of Lucifer. Andriessen’s performers channel a variety of operatic shades, instead of merely impersonating a single particular character in the manner of traditional opera.

Similarly, the composer’s unique ensemble undermines the smoothed-out, homogeneous accompaniment expected from “realistic” opera. The thinned-out strings (absent violas) are just one section among equals, often working in tandem with Andriessen’s large and brilliantly deployed percussion section. Young Dutch composer Anke Brouwer has contributed the electronic soundscape that weaves through the score.

Like his singers, Andriessen’s ensemble shifts from persona to persona, encompassing a gritty, driven, urban sound as well as a kind of celestial detachment. Massings of plucked instruments intimate a medieval milieu, but Andriessen just as readily kicks the music into a swing-jazz mode. Yet he anchors the apparent surface spontaneity of these changing colors in a set of disciplined choices about structural elements and their relations.

Part I – The City of Dis or The Ship of Fools

The electronic track of traffic noise that begins the opera is a sort of leitmotif here, soon translated into the jittery, jagged unison lines and rhythmic patterns that characterize Andriessen in his Stravinsky-meets-Minimalism mode. There’s even a smart-alecky nod at the traffic from An American in Paris. Andriessen brings the irony of Weimar-era Kurt Weill to his parody of moralizing chorales. But – one of the score’s real fascinations – Andriessen tempers the irony with music that wonderfully evokes an otherworldly atmosphere, beyond ordinary time, as heard in Beatrice’s first appearance (the first vocal solo, as well).

Dis, the burning city of the dead, presents the first of several horrific visions in the opera. Andriessen is fascinated by the relationship between musical emotion and imagery and how music can affect our perceptions of the latter – as opposed to the romantic paradigm of programmatic “illustrations” of something external. His repertoire of musical accompaniments for these hellish scenes is not only wide-ranging but defiantly contradictory.

Part II – Racconto dall’Inferno (Story from Hell)

Thus the scene of threatening Furies gives way to a solo scene for Cristina Zavalloni as Dante that is like a cross between a surreal cabaret and a sardonic scherzo. The descending staircase of chromatic chords at the start is one of Andriessen’s plentiful musical symbols. The story of how the head devil Malacoda is reluctantly forced to enlist an escort of demons to help Virgil and Dante on their progress through hell climaxes in a splendid orchestral interlude with Andriessen’s grotesque, twisted parody of a march.

Part III – Lucifer

Another extended passage for the ensemble sets the stage for the opera’s hammiest character. Lucifer not only has three heads and a frighteningly gigantic body but is known by many names – Lucifer itself (“the light-bearer”) being a mocking reminder of how far he’s fallen. Andriessen’s musical landscape is intriguing, full of thick, clotted harmonies and sounds that bubble up from the depths. What’s most unsettling of all is the mix of parody – hints of romantic diablerie – and self-rationalizing evil. Andriessen resorts to extended passages from Joost van den Vondel’s plays about Lucifer and the Fall of Adam, with their proto-Miltonian rhetoric and keenly depicted motivation. But the performative aspects of Lucifer’s delivery – he’s clearly playing a role – are exaggerated in a way that creates a Brechtian distance, further complicating our response.

Part IV – The Garden of Earthly Delights

Along with Dante, Andriessen’s imaginative dialog with the past in this opera involved pondering the work of Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, who painted a famous Ship of Fools and an even-more famous triptych in which Eden and Hell flank “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The composer is very much in tune with Bosch’s ambiguity in this painting of sensual pleasures – here equated with Dante’s sojourn in Purgatory. Like Dante, Bosch forces us to become voyeurs, ostensibly with the excuse of offering cautionary tales. The pleasures are both erotic and artistic.

Andriessen’s aesthetic method is grounded in the philosophical idea of dialectic oppositions and balancing – nowhere more so than in Part Four, which contains the opera’s “lightest” music as a counterweight to the gravity and otherworldliness elsewhere in the score. Dante hears a deceased musician friend, Casella, intoning one of his sonnets (not from the Commedia). The folksong delivery carries over to the Dante figure’s own tour de force performance about the vision of the serpent who tempted Eve. Here Andriessen interpolates the fictional car accident, which leads to a foretaste of the Paradise music in a setting of The Song of Songs that floats upwards.

Part V – Luce etterna (Eternal Light)

In contrast to the high-energy style of the opera’s opening, Andriessen explores a more serene, introspective language in his depiction of Paradise. Beginning with a harp solo that is touching and “clumsy” (as the score indicates), he even seems to put aside the armor of irony for a moment. Yet this part contains the most varied assortment of music in the opera, serving as a de facto summary of its diversity. The rude interruption by Cacciaguida – a distant ancestor of Dante who perished in the Second Crusade and prophesies the poet’s exile and poetic reputation – reminds us of the grumbling of Lucifer and is likewise self-consciously “performative.” Andriessen transforms his speech into just another version of the myth of a lost golden age – even in heaven.

It’s a strange but telling interpolation amid the composer’s “music of light.” Andriessen rounds out La Commedia with the perfect parody of the self-regard of the romantic artist and the severe modernist alike by using a children’s chorus to express the sentiment that if you don’t get it, tough luck.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and contributes to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.