NEW YORK Lincoln Center Festival 2000 kicked off Tuesday night with one its most highly anticipated events, the U.S. premiere of the Peter Greenaway/Louis Andriessen opera, Writing to Vermeer.
The opera was one component in a diverse opening program that included artists from around the world in dance, theater, classical music and modern circus performance.
The Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, presented the New York premiere of Lev Dodin's staging of "Brothers and Sisters," and the French nouveau cirque company Les Colporteurs made its New York debut in a special preview performance of its one-ring show, "Filao."
Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus and his dance company, Ultima Vez, presented the U.S. premiere of "In Spite of Wishing and Wanting," a collaboration with Talking Heads composer/musician David Byrne. Conductor Hans Vonk and the New York Philharmonic opened a series of concerts celebrating the late French composer Olivier Messiaen with a performance of his monumental final work, Éclairs sur l'Au-De&lgrave; (Illuminations of the Beyond).
But it was the U.S. premiere of Writing to Vermeer that had captured much of the pre-festival attention. De Nederlandse Opera offered its production of the piece, based on the life and paintings of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, with music by Dutch composer Andriessen and a libretto and direction by British filmmaker Greenaway.
Performed in English and running for an uninterrupted hour and 40 minutes, Writing to Vermeer is set in May of 1672, when the Dutch master traveled to The Hague, the Netherlands, to help authenticate some dubious Italian paintings. Greenaway based the opera on a series of fictitious letters addressed to Vermeer by three women: his real wife, his mother-in-law, and a fictional model.
As the three women sing lines from their letters, the audience is bombarded with Greenaway's trademark rich, layered imagery, the stage awash in film projections of the handwritten letters, Vermeer's paintings, and even the women themselves, dressed to match the models in the paintings.
Greenaway revels in unusual juxtapositions, and in the opera he sets the quiet domesticity of the women's letters and Vermeer's paintings against the turbulent events of the time when war was declared on the Netherlands, the dikes were breached and all trade and industry came to a standstill.
Water plays a key role in Writing to Vermeer, not only in projections but also on the stage itself, which is surrounded by water on all sides. The opera ends in a forceful display of water pouring down from above and washing everything away, a deluge symbolic of the breaking of the dikes by the Dutch in a desperate attempt to keep their country from being invaded.
But Greenaway's compelling visuals weren't enough in themselves to keep the opera afloat.
Andriessen's score, which was well performed by conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and the Asko and Schönberg ensembles, was a postmodern hodgepodge of musical styles, from 17th-century court and military melodies to bold contemporary dissonances. If there was a mood to be captured here, it was not done so by the music.
The libretto also does little to elucidate either the insulated lives of these women (sung beautifully by Barbara Hannigan, Susan Narucki and Kathryn Harries) or the tragedies occurring around them in the world outside.
Vermeer's paintings of women are remarkable for the way that they capture a simple domestic moment reading, writing, playing music and offer a glimpse into the subject's inner world. But the women in Greenaway's opera, like the women in his movies, seem to have no inner worlds of their own without a man to guide them.
"We all love you. Hurry home," the three write to Vermeer in letter after letter after letter. He couldn't have made it back fast enough to salvage this strange and circuitous story.