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Music review: 'La Commedia' at the Green Umbrella Concert at Disney Hall

April 14, 2010 |  2:40 pm

CommediaLouis Andriessen's fourth and most important opera — which was given its first complete U.S. performance Tuesday night in a concert performance at a Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella Concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall — is “La Commedia.” It is based, loosely, on Dante and retains the original title of the classic three-part poem we know as “The Divine Comedy.” The hard-driving, deep-thinking Dutch composer is too street smart to flirt with the divine.

Or so Andriessen, who is not only Holland's leading composer but also a major influence on spunky post-Minimalist American composers, may think. For the premiere of “Commedia” in Amsterdam two years ago, he devised one useless ruse after another in a stage meant to deliver a divine-less comedy.

But once they were removed, we were left with a spectacularly sung and played concert performance that made a strangely exhilarating encounter with the here-and-now and the beyond all the more meaningful. And inescapably divine.

The ruses began in Amsterdam by moving “Commedia” from the Netherlands Opera's formal theater to a refurbished historic circus. The production by the American filmmaker Hal Hartley added several vague new narratives onto Andriessen's own multilayered vague narratives.

Willems Andriessen originally assembled a libretto in five scenes with short texts from Dante, the Psalms and a 16th century Dutch writer, Joost van den Vondel. The journey is not clear-cut, but Dante — in the form of the extraordinarily versatile mezzo-soprano, jazz singer and new music specialist Cristina Zavalloni — descends into the horrible city of Dis and also enters a purgatory fashioned after Hieronymus Bosch's “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Lucifer — in the form of the extraordinarily versatile actor and popular singer Jeroen Willems — is a character out of Vongel. Beatrice (in the visage of the high-voiced Claron McFadden) has a small part, as does the Dante's musician friend Casella (sung by a Baroque music specialist, tenor Marcel Beekman).

Hartley's contribution was a background black-and-white film in which Dante is a television journalist and the central action is a car crash. This was in addition to a physical production on a construction site with convenient cranes for the character to ride up and down and convenient beach balls for them to play with.

The Disney performance featured nearly all the original performers, including the Asko/Schönberg ensemble and Synergy Vocals, and was conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, who led the premiere. It was given without the film or sets, but Zavalloni and Willems were all the more theatrical without such distractions, and McFadden's was a more angelic Beatrice sung in the organ loft than on an elevated crane.

Hartley's production was not unamusing or ineffective, but he did in the program notes suggest that “Commedia” was not an opera, and he seemed to operate on the principle of compensation.

He was probably right. Ultimately, “Commedia” may work best as dramatic oratorio. Andriessen's many narrative layers and even more musical styles need room to breathe. And that is exactly what they got Tuesday.

A single Disney performance meant a few new built-in problems, though. Andriessen uses amplification, and in the theater in Amsterdam, where there were weeks of rehearsals and performances that allowed plenty of time to adjust electronics, the sound was glorious. In Disney, it was harsh at first but soon evened out acceptably most of the time. Nothing much could be done, however, about a flamboyantly fuming spoken monologue near the end from Willems as Cacciaguida, a distant cousin of Dante who appears out of nowhere and takes our breath away. Words were typically hard to parse in a reverberant space suited to music.

Still, “Commedia” has a unique connection to Disney. The Los Angeles Master Chorale commissioned and gave the world premiere of the opening scene, “The City of Dis.” And the Philharmonic performed the second scene, a monologue by Zavalloni during its Minimalist Jukebox festival three years ago.

The instrumental ensemble, a few strings (no violas) and plenty of brass winds and percussion, belted out jazz, aced difficult Stravinskyan and Minimalist rhythms and sounded, when asked, touchingly tender and gloriously glittery. And they also sounded, when asked — as in a grotesque duo for contrabass bassoon and contrabass clarinet — fabulously weird. The eight Synergy vocalists were as inspired scat singers and inspired madrigalists.

There is no one quite like the scary, seductive Zavalloni. Willems is a stage magnet. De Leeuw is Virgil to Andriessen's Dante, the perfect guide for his music.

There were a few local interlopers. Members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus walked on at the end in street clothes (the kids in Amsterdam were urchins). After a great catharsis, the children inform us with the surety of the innocent that if you didn't get the meaning of any of this, you won't get the Last Judgment. Ever. Their sentiment may be comic. But their tune, which closes “Commedia,” is truly divine.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: (top) Christina Zavalloni as Dante in a concert performance of Louis Andriessen's "La Commedia" at Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night. (below) Jeroen Willems as Lucifer. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times    

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