LOUIS ANDRIESSEN: Writing to Vermeer (complete opera) – Susan Narucki, soprano/ Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano/ Barbara Hannigan, soprano/ De Nederlandse Opera/ Schoenberg Ensemble/ Asko Ensemble/ Reinbert De Leeuw, conductor/ Electronic music by Michel Van Der Aa – Nonesuch 79887-2, (2 discs), 50:36, 51:11 ****:
I have always found Louis Andriessen to be a rather unpredictable composer, so it was with some hesitancy that I approached his new opera (actually from 1999), Writing to Vermeer. The very premise of the story is most un-operatic, with six scenes involving three women in Johannes Vermeer’s life—his mother, wife, and model/ intimate (this last purely fictional). Vermeer, as the story goes, is out of town on a trip to The Hague, yet eagerly expected back, and the three ladies write him six letters each. These letters are the substance of the opera, dealing with domestic activities, the children, and marriage plans, and they all implore him in a most affectionate way to return soon. Tragic episodes from the Dutch “Year of Disasters”, 1672, serve as the foil for Vermeer’s domestic bliss (things that he ignored), and events such as an explosion in Delft, the Catholic-Protestant unrest, the crash of the tulip market, the French invasion, the murder of the statesman-brothers De Witt, and the final fatal flood inflicted against the French that ended up destroying not only Vermeer and his family, but the entire country.
The jarring episodes are accompanied by electronic music that is actually very effective, though parts do sound, well… electronic and gimmicky. But what is really missing here is the visual aspect, where scenes from these brutal dealings are displayed in many ways on stage. [Filmmaker Peter Greenaway did the staging and directing…Ed.] Not having these lessens the dramatic aspects of the score, as most of the music is meant to portray the more sedate, even static, lives of the three women. As a result, a lot of the musical activity borders on the static also, though it must be admitted that this is some of the most engaging, genuinely inspired writing I have heard from this composer. Even without the dramatic impetus that no doubt illumined the staged version, the music is never dull, and is highly melodic and pleasant, making for a very enjoyable 100 minutes or so.
Another potential problem is the idea of only three sopranos (and this augmented by a number of “children” singers), something that could get tiresome over a long production. But Andriessen seems to avoid this problem with clever instrumental writing (with the many quotes from composers of the past given the full “period” style treatment), and his scoring of the voices avoids any strenuous duos or trios that accentuate the higher registers. What you do hear is the gradual anticipatory excitement at Vermeer’s return (and he never does, by the way), and the stressful anguish that increases in tone as the opera progresses. Yet as nice as the music is, I fail to see how this recording can ever put across the full dramatic effect of the staged version, something that many other opera recordings surely can do.
The three women are very well portrayed here, and Andriessen must have been concerned about audience accessibility as the entire opera is given in English. Nonesuch provides very nicely spaced sound, with the electronic effects seamlessly integrated into the whole, a most impressive production. The notes are fine, if a little esoteric, and an interview with the composer is included. This is certainly a worthy entry in the modern opera world, and musically it holds its own with any new opera I can think of, mixing lyrical elements of Floyd with rhythms and harmonies of Britten. Whether the stage version renders it successful, I cannot say, but what is given here is very interesting and musically viable.
— Steven Ritter