with a libretto by Helmut Krausser
Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher), Lindsay Kesselman, (The Boy), Marcel Beekman (Pope Innocent XI), Cristina Zavalloni (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz), Steven van Watermeulen (Janssonius), Mattijs van de Woerd (Carnifex), Timur (Voltaire), Tim Gonzales (Descartes), David Castillo (Goethe), Scott Graff (Leibniz), Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, Ingeborg Bröcheler (Witches), Nora Fischer, Martijn Cornet (Lovers)
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor)
Pierre Audi (director)
Quay Brothers (décor & video), Florence von Gerkan (costumes), Wijnand van der Horst (lighting)
Walt Disney Concert Hall
May 8, 2016
In the moral universe of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the life trajectory of the Reverend Edward Casaubon serves as a cautionary tale. A humorless academic who spends most of his time aspiring unsuccessfully to complete his magnum opus, loftily titled The Key to All Mythologies, he at least has the decency to die not long after the protagonist Dorothea Brooke realizes their marriage is loveless. Casaubon was survived solely by his unfinished work, in which he sought a syncretic account of the world’s major mythological systems—one key to read them all. The genius of Eliot’s parable is that it did not have to be so: Dorothea initially finds the idea of aiding her husband’s arcane research Romantic (it was one of the few things that originally recommended him to her), but he guards his knowledge jealously, thus isolating himself. Eliot clearly found this attitude contemptible enough to consign Casaubon to an ignominious fate.
Given its world premiere performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic last month, the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s latest music drama, his “Grotesque” in nine scenes, Theatre of the World, partakes of a similar dynamic. Its protagonist, portrayed heroically in this, the first-ever production, by baritone Leigh Melrose, is Athanasius Kircher, a seventeenth-century Jesuit scholar whose Faustian obsession with systematizing diverse systems of knowledge is reminiscent of Casaubon’s. Unfortunately, so is his boorish propensity for philosophizing.
The real Kirchner was interested in subjects as diverse and tantalizingly exotic as Egyptian hieroglyphs, medicine, and that nineteenth-century favorite, comparative linguistics. Onstage, he is beset by an outsized thirst for knowledge, not containable within the confines of an all-too-human imagination. Aided by the stylized direction of Pierre Audi, which was characterized by expressionistic juxtapositions of gesture and affect, Kirchner’s desire for knowledge is depicted in Theatre of the World as symptomatic of a broader set of drives. Knowledge, Kirchner’s object of desire, proliferates into ever more fragmented yet mutually dependent discourses: knowledge seeks after power, which pants for sex, which leads to death—a familiar enough formula. Yet the result is dramatic neither in the fragmentary sense implied by the word “grotesque” nor in the unitary sense of a dramatic arc as exhibited by traditional operatic form.
Librettist Helmut Krausser bills Kircher as “the last true Renaissance man,” a role in which he has also been cast by history. He spends the nearly two hour-long show being led around various historically significant locations like some former-day Scrooge. His guiding demon is a Mephistophelean boy of “about twelve,” sung and acted with perfectly precocious mischievousness by soprano Lindsay Kesselman. As a character, The Boy is an inverse Cherubino, the quintessential teen-in-love from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. But whereas Cherubino desires nothing more than to bear testimony to his youthful ardor for the older Susanna, the Boy is uncannily in control of Kircher’s own desire for him—a desire on which the opera hinges—and he exploits it the better to lead the Faustian protagonist hither and thither, off that narrow road.
Their travels could not begin more auspiciously, in the catacombs of St. Peter’s Basilica. The auspiciousness of this initial setting is sustained throughout, with highlights including visits to China, Egypt, and—but how could they possibly resist?—the Tower of Babel. Pope Innocent XI, spiritedly portrayed by Dutch tenor Marcel Beekman, also tags along for the ride, joined by a few other friends from history, including Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who appears as a beatific vision, embodied with transcendent charisma and a richly abundant tone by the multi-talented Italian singer Cristina Zavalloni. Voltaire, Descartes, Goethe, and Leibniz also make a last-ditch ensemble appearance, dispatched with energy by Timur, Tim Gonzales, David Castillo, and Scott Graff, respectively.
The action feels kaleidoscopic rather than cumulative, dispersed over geographical distances rather than plotted out in time. In fact, the overarching idea—the plot’s “problem”—is that Kircher is indeed running out of time. As he closes in on death, he is forced to meditate on the work’s major theme: the complicity of knowledge in structures of power (just when you thought it was safe to stop reading Foucault). Knowledge is no mere means to power for Kircher, however, but rather an object of obsessive desire in itself. It is the purity of his desire that ultimately saves him, though it is far from disinterested. Part of The Boy’s dramatic purpose seems to be to embody Kircher’s desire, a power which is wielded malevolently and is dispersed throughout many bodies on stage; even the Pope gets a hand-job.
In one of his great critical aperçus, Oscar Wilde asserted that “where there is no love there is no understanding.” As far as drama is concerned, this is eminently true: if we as an audience cannot be made to identify, even if momentarily, with a character’s desire, however prurient it may be, then that character will forever remain beyond our ken, and their problems will never become our own. If we merely condemn but cannot commiserate, even if briefly, then that character has failed. For a successful working model from the recent past, Benjamin Britten’s operas come to mind. Britten’s depictions of desire are so dramatically effective because he makes us share in their prurience, whether in the guise of Peter Quint’s panting after Miles in The Turn of the Screw (1954) or Gustav von Aschenbach's scopophilic adoration of Tadzio in Death in Venice (1971-74). The sincerity with which desire is depicted is what gives Britten’s operas their uncanny leering quality.
When it comes to music theater, intention is always a gray area. We must always ask when assessing such genres: who did what? And also, what are the relations among the various parts? It is perhaps telling, then, that Theatre of the World was premiered not by the Los Angeles Opera, as might have been expected of a stage work, but rather by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which admittedly does have a stellar reputation for its ventures into the realm of staged and semi-staged concerts (one thinks of their 2013 performances of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels). Andriessen, meanwhile, has been a regular guest at the L.A. Phil since the early 2000s, and recent years have seen them perform some of his most important dramatic scores, including De Materie and La Commedia.
The new score’s subtitle is again telling in this regard; two tendencies are discernible in Andriessen’s descriptors. One is a desire to guard Theatre of the World from the dreaded label “opera,” which is so embarrassingly marked by un-ironic sentiment. By contrast, a “Grotesque” does not carry those heavy operatic connotations. Rather, it is beholden to lighter, more stylized forms of theater, especially melodrama. This is mere entertainment, or so it seems to announce itself, replete with a cast of characters whose dominant traits are as outsized as their fates are predetermined. The second tendency to which the subtitle points is fragmentation: a work divided into “9 scenes” rather than, say, three acts is advertising its piecemeal quality and, in doing so, renouncing expectations of narrative connectivity. Once more, the aim is to undercut the possibility of empathizing with the characters, in a Brechtian sense.
In Theatre of the World, then, the drama falls flat precisely because almost every word, every action, every gesture even, is cast in an ironic mode that creates an unbridgeable distance between Kircher’s desire and our own. The irony is amplified by Audi’s defamiliarized gestural repertoire, by Florence von Gerkan’s fantastical costumes, and even by the wonderfully grotesque décor of the Quay Brothers. The only bit of salvific sincerity comes by way of Sor Juana’s appearances. Yet these visions are also consciously distanced, placed in a separate niche as it were, made extraordinary by a penumbra backlit behind a scrim.
Yet the music itself was wonderfully free from the dramatic problems to which it contributed. Conducted with characteristic panache by long-time collaborator Reinbert de Leeuw, it was in Andriessen’s best-dressed style: lots of glossy string pads, bass-forward grooves, and of course his trademark stylistic capaciousness that in this case included bits of Baroque arcana, like the little harpsichord flourishes so suavely emphasized by keyboardist Vicki Ray. Marked by a consistency of texture and polished with stunning orchestrational élan, Andriessen’s music managed to effectively underscore the truly grotesque array of action on stage, while somehow remaining elegant at all times. It was stunning. Imagine undulating lines in the strings coupled with woodwinds so that it is impossible to tell them apart except for their quiet apotheosis into a translucent whole—a staple texture throughout. Or imagine, yet again, the booming percussive bursts which are surprising even when you know they are just around the corner—a clue to Andriessen’s immense admiration for the music of Stravinsky, whose rhythmic verve is never far from his own palette.
Nor, strictly speaking, was the production poor. On the contrary, it was impressive. It is rather that the individual strengths of Andriessen’s team, as well as the enchantingly direct variety of his musical style, were unfortunately harnessed to Krausser’s ineffective dramaturgy, which fumbles around with facile symbolism and a steady succession of forced monologues. Krausser’s libretto fails to communicate because it is cloyed with irony, so that all of the big questions constantly presented on stage—knowledge and desire, life and death, heaven and hell—feel profoundly unimportant. Musically, Andriessen’s latest dramatic score is heaven. Dramatically, Theatre of the World remains in purgatory—a most uncomfortable place to be, for (true to form) there was no intermission. (A few audience members did leave discretely as has been reported elsewhere, but it was hardly an exodus.)
All of that irony made Kircher a humorless character, and humorlessness is a difficult vice to surmount, in Andriessen no less than George Eliot. As characters, Casaubon and Kircher resemble one another in their insatiable desire to acquire arcane knowledge and then systematize it. For both, this driving passion leads inexorably to death. With Casaubon, however, the consequences of mortality are attenuated according to the minor role he performs within the narrative structure of Eliot's novel. Andriessen does not have that luxury, but must of necessity foreground Kircher's existential and fantastically erudite angst. Unfortunately, the libretto favors platitudes. Like Casaubon, therefore, Kircher comes across as an over-earnest bore despite the rare elegance of the surrounding music. I found Andriessen’s Kircher (for the work is ultimately Andreissen’s responsibility) no less contemptible than Eliot surely found Casaubon. So even if the Theatre of the World sends him, ultimately, to heaven, the theater of my judgment wishes to send him direct the other way.
Damjan Rakonjac is a composer, critic, and musicologist. He writes criticism for the LA Times and the Artificialist blog, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at UCLA.
Production images: Craig T. Mathew; banner image: detail from Athanasius Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (1650)