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Louis Andriessen's new stagework La Commedia is a highlight of the Holland Festival in June.

When was your interest in Dante’s La Commedia first kindled?

I’ve had an ongoing interest in Dante for close on 30 years. At the time of writing De Tijd I was researching possible texts in Florence. The work finally ended up using a text by St Augustine, but I did retain as a motto a phrase from the Paradiso section of Commedia that describes “gazing on the point beyond which all times are present”.

How did the idea for a full-length opera come into being?

I’d always wanted to return to Dante’s Florence by writing in Italian, and this came about through hearing the singer Cristina Zavalloni, who for me was the first since Cathy Berberian to produce the right vernacular quality. I wrote Racconto dall’inferno for her, a grotesque scherzo setting texts from the Inferno section of La Commedia, and the idea of a full-evening stagework grew from there, with Racconto as the second of the five scenes.

What in essence does opera mean to you?

The nineteenth century opera tradition has never meant a lot to me – my favourite operas are the Bach Passions. I’ve probably spent more of my time watching movies, whether Tom and Jerry or Fellini. But I have always been interested in theatre, and its relations with other artforms including singing. I’ve worked in theatres from the age of 14 and was particularly active in this area in the 1970s with the Baal group, which tried to recapture the spirit of Brecht and Weill. This led to all manner of mixed-media collaborations including film and dance as well as music.

You’ve titled La Commedia a ‘film opera’ and are working with director Hal Hartley.

Yes, we were brought together for the first time in 2000 on a short film with music called The New Math(s), and then on a theatre project Inanna. My experience working with visual artists is that you can suggest a few images but largely you have to allow their mind’s eye to work – it was the same collaborating with Robert Wilson for De Materie and with Peter Greenaway. With Hal Hartley I’ve spent most time discussing moods and my choices of texts, and how ideas are linked to the paintings of heaven and hell by Hieronimus Bosch. The film footage is totally contemporary, but I’ve seen a section where a gang of street musicians is a perfect modern equivalent to a Bosch painting.

How did you select the texts from the complete Commedia?

The first principle was to select sequences of material in the same order as in Dante’s book. So the first two scenes take us from the City of Dis down through Inferno to the deepest regions of hell where we meet Lucifer in the third part. This is where Adam’s Fall is described. We then pass upward through the lighter-hearted Garden of Earthly Delights until we reach Paradise in the final section, Eternal Light.

What led you to assemble the libretto in multiple languages?

I came from a generation of composers who were no longer slaves to traditions or existing forms. So, as I’ve always been an active reader of books in many languages, it seemed perfectly natural for me to build my own libretto. The text that Berio assembled for Epiphanie always served as an elegant model for me in this respect. My use of multiple languages is rather like a fairground where sideshows offer different aspects of personalities or multiple interpretations of the same thing. Even though employing some non-vernacular texts can create a communicative distance for the listener, this in turn creates a psychology where drama and emotion can be generated in new terms.

How do the comic and serious elements balance in the work?

This is quite a complicated question to answer. Dante would simply have viewed comedy in the Greek sense where it is a form of serious drama that has a happy ending. The adjective ‘Divine’ was only added to Dante’s title in the 16th century, some 200 years after the book’s completion around 1320, so the religious aspect of Commedia is really only within an overall social, political and essentially humanist framework. This is why I view the text as being more concerned with our life on earth than with any afterlife, and Dante’s comic vehicle for this observation was irony, which really appealed to me. Irony is what generates the drama in my opera – a satirical view of heaven and hell in our everyday life. There are comic and serious sides to this irony which play off each other in a dialectic manner. The lightness is balanced with melancholy – something I also hear in the music of Stravinsky and Poulenc - and I’ve tried to offset serious with popular music, such as in the swinging jazz clarinet music that leads us into the Garden of Earthly Delights.

How did you decide on the vocal forces for the opera?

I’ve always been more interested in working with singing actors than acting singers. So the three principal voices in the opera are not conventional types. As well as being a contemporary music specialist, Claron McFadden who sings Beatrice is a baroque singer with a background in soul and gospel. Cristina Zavalloni worked first in jazz and experimental music and brings a unique timbre and Jeroen Willems is foremost an actor but is also a great performer of  the songs of Jacques Brel. Rather than personifying the roles of Dante and Lucifer, those two singers function more as commentators. Then there is a small chorus of eight solo voices, and a children’s choir that appears in the final scene.

Are there any special features in the orchestration?

The orchestra is a little smaller than my typical large ensemble of the 1980s: triple winds, double brass, two pianos, two percussionists and strings without violas. As well as a harp there is a plucked combo of cimbalom, guitar and bass guitar which give some sections of the score a distinctive, perhaps medieval colour. I haven’t gone out of my way to create a period sound as I did with Writing to Vermeer, though I did decide against having synthesiser keyboards which wouldn’t have sounded right. In addition to the orchestra, I asked Anke Brouwer to provide a series of electronic soundscapes. Sometimes these are heard alone and sometimes they add a particular coloration to the orchestral sound.

How does the opera fit into your output – is it in some ways summatory?

Well, that’s really for others to judge. It has occupied my thoughts for many years, and perhaps there are more cross references and allusions to other music in this score. So this is different to my usual approach of creating self-contained sections of music. I have found myself examining earlier pieces dealing with similar issues, but I haven’t created a grand summing up. Even in the final section which could have finished with celestial choirs, I decided on an amusing surprise finale like in Don Giovanni or Gianni Schicchi. The kids run back onto stage to sing this message from Dante: “These are my notes and if you don’t understand them, you’ll never understand the Last Judgement”.

Interview with David Allenby

> for tickets visit www.dno.nl

>  Further information on Work: La Commedia

Photo: Francesca Patella

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