Critic’s Notebook: Instrumental Armies Do Battle at Amsterdam’s Opera


His stirring, confident “La Morte d’Orfeo” shared some features he has used in works quite different from Landi’s, like Messiaen’s “St. François d’Assise.” Gleaming, lacquer-shiny black plastic sheets appeared once again, this time as a scenic backdrop that allowed select colors of the stage design to pop with vibrancy — like a suspended wintry tree sprouting in multiple directions, suggesting both Earth and the underworld.

Guiding affecting performances from the cast, Mr. Audi’s interpretive hand was not heavy. Particular standouts at the Sunday matinee included a sweeping sense of melodic line from the baritone Renato Dolcini and the controlled viciousness of the countertenor Kacper Szelazek. The lustrous warmth of the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Molinari’s tone was put to ample use as she was given a four-role marathon that included Eurydice.

In directing “The Raft of the Medusa,” Romeo Castellucci followed an occasional strategy of Mr. Audi’s: Take something that is not really an opera, squint at it, and make it one. Here, Henze’s oratorio about the shipwrecked conscripts of the frigate Medusa in 1816 — you probably know the classic Géricault painting — was connected to contemporary political concerns by a film of Mr. Castellucci’s, projected on a scrim at the front of the stage.

In the film the athlete Mamadou Ndiaye languished in roughly the same patch of sea where the Medusa once disintegrated, off the coast of Senegal, while Henze’s characters congregated on both sides of the screen. The filmed presence of Mr. Ndiaye, evoking current-day refugees in current-day waters, slices through some of the ’twas-ever-thus fatalism of Henze’s socialist critique. By placing contemporary images front and center, the staging reopens these old questions, as if to ask: Must it always be this way?

After exciting opening minutes, the staging lost coherence for a stretch. It wasn’t consistently clear which of Henze’s characters were dead and which were living. Henze’s vividly aggrieved string writing, stacked with eerie harmonics and col legno abrasion, had more impact than some of the images; the conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra drew intense drama from these passages.

Photo

A gently surreal staging of Stefano Landi’s “La Morte d’Orfeo” was directed by Pierre Audi, the outgoing leader of the Dutch National Opera.

Credit
Ruth Walz

There is an arresting turn near the end. Throughout the work, the character of Death (sung with steely urgency by the soprano Lenneke Ruiten) is dressed as a camera-toting cable news anchor. When Mr. Castellucci makes what seems an obvious move — turning the camera on the seats, implicating the audience — he doesn’t offer the live feed we might expect; instead, the seats appear empty.

The effect goes beyond challenging the audience’s politics, and instead calls its very existence into doubt. Here, the staging achieved an abstract power perfectly in line with the hallucinations of the libretto. The reimagining wasn’t quite as effective as Mr. Audi’s 2014 recasting of Schoenberg’s cantata “Gurre-Lieder” as an opera. But the best moments came close.

While it didn’t have the same dramatic impact, the double bill of “Trouble in Tahiti” and “Clemency” also boasted a strong cast, including the persuasively haunted soprano Turiya Haudenhuyse, who didn’t overdo the indignant mood that can be easily overindulged in portrayals of Dinah, Bernstein’s claustral 1950s housewife.

By the time Opera Forward finally got to the chunk of Stockhausen, the biggest surprise wasn’t that it actually happened, but that it spoke to the rest of the works in the festival.

“Tuesday” is an opera of conflict between two of the characters driving the full “Licht” cycle. There’s Michael, a tenor role (and sometimes a loose stand-in for Stockhausen himself), who tends to be accompanied by some tricky trumpet playing. Lucifer is the demonic avatar of creative destruction: a bass voice shadowed by trombones. In “Invasion-Explosion With Farewell,” their respective instrumental armies do battle atop an eight-channel, surround-sound electronic composition.

On Sunday evening, Michael, Lucifer and their warring teams snaked around the audience, which was seated on stage. The players engaged in volleys of crashing, loud confrontations separated by muted retreats. The omnidirectional swirl of music, which also included percussion and distended keyboard tones, was the best live Stockhausen performance I’ve heard; it had all the crazed complexity of a work like “Gruppen,” but with a clear dramatic through line.

When one of Michael’s trumpeters is wounded, Eva, the maternal character in “Licht,” emerges to offer some comfort. The soprano Pia Bohnert’s lightly amplified performance of this section sounded like an outer-space cousin of Calliope’s mourning in “La Morte d’Orfeo.” As Mr. Audi has long proven, bringing opera forward doesn’t just involve new works, though next year brings Gyorgy Kurtag’s long-awaited adaptation of Beckett’s “Endgame,” after its premier this fall in Milan. It also means finding connections between styles and periods often thought incompatible.

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