Upon discovering that composer Louis Andriessen’s massive two-hour setting of Dante’s Divine Comedy was conceived as a “film opera,” there may be a temptation to throw up one’s hands. (This was the reaction some in the audience had at the New York premiere of this music, in 2010, at Carnegie Hall, where no images were provided on stage.) Learning that the libretto is in four languages probably won’t contradict this mood — nor will news that the DVD version released by Nonesuch Records is directed by American indie auteur Hal Hartley. “This sounds pretty complicated,” one might reason. “Is it even worth listening to, as a purely musical event?”
The answer to that question is: absolutely. The Dutch composer, famously influenced by American minimalism, sneaks in plenty of the brassy hard-riffage for which he’s justly famed (especially in the first hour, all of which takes place in hell). But there’s also a catalog of new Andriessen moves that is beyond rich: a proper aria, moments of jazz percussion that bump up against electric-bass funk, and the occasional pop lick in the woodwinds all occur in the fourth movement. More to the point, the whole project resonates thematically, whether you’re a Dante scholar or not. (While Divine Comedy nuts who can use the stray English cues to process which Canto a given moment is addressing will have fun with that, it’s not necessary to have that level of appreciation for the text in order to get the narrative.) The ominously descending chords in the second movement, “Racconta dell’inferno” tell you where we’re traveling: down into another circle of the inferno.
Parts one through three take place in hell. Mezzo-soprano Cristina Zavalloni inhabits the Dante role (yet another abstraction), while a chorus delivers some rote scene setting (usually in Italian). Lucifer (portrayed by vocalist Jeroen Willems) gets a great aria in the last 10 minutes of the third movement; here, the dryness of Andriessen’s preferred vocal texture — no “operatic” vibrato allowed — makes the comedic aspect of La Commedia really sing. (Check out how orchestra struts about with vaudevillian abandon while the Devil is bragging about his plans to assault humanity and heaven.)
The fourth movement — with its dizzying megamix of musical styles — is in a purgatory that seems an awful lot like our contemporary sound-world. Dante hears a spellbinding performance of one of his sonnets from his dead friend Casella (the excellent tenor Marcel Beekman). And the fifth tableau — a glimpse of heaven — winds up being a place where snippets of the other realms echo strangely (sometimes in harp arrangements), while the listener (and Dante) is subject to an afterlife of spoken-word ancestor-whinging (in grave Dutch) about the general decline of civilization. In short, a line-by-line translation isn’t necessary to enjoy this. The themes are broad and familiar enough to serve as a background for the music, which is the main event.
Less an adaptation proper than five extended meditations on Dante’s trilogy created by a conceptual prankster and musical talent, La Commedia‘s strange, meta-textual design may even make a hyper-literal presentation not strictly desirable. Even the audience in the hall for the staged Amsterdam premiere of this opera — the basis of this live recording, which is superbly played and conducted by the ASKO/Schonberg Ensemble and Reinbert de Leeuw — starts applauding too soon. There’s still one joke to go — which comes when a children’s choir intones a final burst of Dante set to a jaunty Andriessen song: “These are all my notes for you/ and if you do not get it/ you won’t get the Last Judgement/ you will never get it, ever.”
If the audience seeing the full “film version” of the opera doesn’t know when the Divine Comedy has concluded, what hope might any of us have? Andriessen once famously said that “in America, there is not enough angst!” Here, he brings us a heavy dose of just this mood — and whether his piece is flitting about between wildly different aesthetics, or else chugging along in a symphonic slow-motion version of grindcore, Andriessen brings his project across with quite a bit of exquisite (if not divine) comedy that is all his own.