At one point towards the middle of Theatre of the World — a new opera with music by Louis Andriessen and a libretto by Helmut Krausser that received its world première on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic playing under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw — Pope Innocenzo IX asks cantankerously “how long is this going to last?,” followed not long thereafter by a petulant “I just want to leave!” Setting such lines in a contemporary opera always seems a bit like tempting fate, as there’s a very real chance some members of the audience will genuinely feel the same way. But the house was free of nervous chuckles at that moment, and no one seems to have taken it as their cue to leave.
Not that there wasn’t laughter at other points over the bizarre course of the evening. The Pope (played by Marcel Beekman) says those lines shortly after being transported to Egypt around 1400 BC, along with Athanasius Kircher (Leigh Melrose), a German Jesuit polymath of the 1600s; a twelve-year-old boy (Lindsay Kesselman), who later turns out to be the Devil; and Janssonius (Steven Van Watermeulen), Kircher’s publisher in Amsterdam. This follows mercurial scenes set variously in Rome and Amsterdam, and is followed in turn by a visit to Babylon, a phantasmagorical lovers’ duet, and a gristly scene where the Boy/Devil eats Kircher’s heart — just cut out of his recently deceased body — only to discover that Kircher’s soul has escaped his clutches and gone up to Heaven. If this sounds a tad bewildering, it was, though perhaps not unintentionally. In an extensive program note, the composer is quoted explaining that his score “is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as ‘a Grotesque.’”
Demanding sense and orderliness from this, then, is probably a fool’s errand. The historical Kircher was a man of many interests, and over the course of his life published dozens of monumental tomes in a determined effort to summarize every piece of knowledge known at the time. Much of this “knowledge,” being based on 17th–Century methodologies, hasn’t exactly been supported by subsequent inquiry, but his works were wildly popular in his day, and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his books, not the least because of their beautiful illustrations. The opera ostensibly takes Kircher as its subject, pairing his scholarly interests with the Jesuit conception of the world as a stage on which a cosmic play authored by God unfolds (hence the title), but the character of Kircher Krauser and Andriessen present takes the historical person more as a starting point for fantasy than as a goal to capture. They gives us a Kircher plagued by visions and demons, and while this seems like a clear reference to tropes associated with various Christian mystics, I can’t find any evidence that Kircher would be an appropriate fit for such things. The staging (by Pierre Audi) adds another uncomfortable wrinkle, with Kircher twitching and stimming as though he has some (unspecified) mental illness. It was a strange decision, and one I don’t really understand.
Regrettably, it wasn’t the only questionable staging choice. At numerous times, both Kircher and the Pope grope, grind up against, and otherwise molest both each other and various other characters. Only once is this even mentioned in the libretto, and even then has no impact on the rest of the plot, such as it is. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the director was using sexual content in a cliched attempt to be shocking and outré, with no deeper meaning in mind. The nadir for this was probably when three witches entered to disrupt the love scene in the second half. If you were deliberately setting out to write a scene to illustrate various Queer Theory ideas about how non-normative sexualities have been demonized in media, you could hardly come up with a clearer example than this. The two lovers — identified only as He and She (Martijn Cornet and Nora Fischer, respectively) — sing a rustic, folksy duet of rapturous devotion, the picture of monogamous heterosexual bliss. They are then set upon by the three Witches (Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, and Ingeborg Bröchler) who, dressed in dominatrix garb, sing a jazz–inflected diatribe against the male gender, urging the female lover to join their decadent world of liberated female sexuality and ultimately striking the male lover dead. (He gets better.) To drive the point home, the Witches are working directly for the Devil himself, and make their first entrance by climbing up out of a trapdoor in the center of the stage. Subtle.
In spite of all this, there is much that is attractive in this score. Andriessen weaves together numerous influences with a deft touch, producing something that feels like a thoroughly integrated whole for all the disparate sound worlds it integrates. If some contemporary composers have opted for a path of pastiche, blithely pasting patches of different styles together without evening out any of the seams (a choice which, needless to say, can be powerfully effective at times), Andriessen instead seems to be bending his masterful craftsmanship to smoothing over the gaps until it’s impossible to tell just where one style stops and the next begins. At one point, a brass fanfare that could have been quoted directly from Gabrielli bypasses centuries of music history in mere seconds to morph effortlessly into a figure Copland could have penned — this fanfare being built around the drooping, all but atonal trombone motive that opens the work, and that elsewhere is transfigured in the woodwinds into a march that keeps threatening to become the passage from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen Mahler recycles in the first movement of his first symphony. And yet it all feels like one; the unity of the musical fabric never feels in danger of coming unwoven.
Even more astonishing is the balance Andriessen has struck between the density of his orchestrational colors and the underlying transparency of the texture. Many of the sounds Andriessen deploys are gnarly composites of several instruments, rich treats for the ear to unpick as they pass by, duets for bass and contrabass clarinet alternating with electric guitars, synthesizers, and a large percussion battery, among many other sonic resources. And yet the complexity never goes to far; the score is never muddy, even in the ferocious tutti passages that erupt at various climax points. This music is a virtuosic display of the compositional dexterity needed to balance an intricate net of details at the smallest level against overarching clarity at the largest.
Still, at times it felt like I was listening to an incredible orchestra piece that someone had, for some reason, pasted an opera on top of. There’s a long tradition of composers cobbling together instrumental suites from their operas, and I sincerely hope Andriessen continues that practice. Theatre of the World is full of attractive music, any of which I would very much like to listen to again without having to watch a Baroque Pope dry humping one of Europe’s last Renaissance men while a sarcastic publisher looks on with a Devil wearing a Batman shirt and exercise pants. Unlike Innocenzo IX, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to close my eyes.