Maarten Baanders saw an opera that remained an island.
An omnivore was Athanasius Kircher (1602 - 1680). No phenomenon in the universe could escape his eagerness to investigate. A universal scholar he was, but also a fantasist. Hence, he did not count in science. But for a grotesque opera, you can hardly imagine a more attractive protagonist.
Louis Andriessen composed 'Theatre of the World' to a libretto by Helmut Krausser. It is not easy to capture a life in which so many exuberant subjects have passed through the protagonist's mind in seven quarters of an hour. Krausser has chosen to draw Kircher's life together in his final hours. A borderline situation. The ultimate moment to wonder what he has really made of life. Kircher's thoughts take on urgency.
The main characters of his life surround him in a cemetery in Rome: the pope (who was impressed by his scientific achievements), his Amsterdam publisher Janssonius, a young couple in love, a somewhat mysterious little boy who constantly intrudes into his thought processes, and in the background a nun and poet worshipped by Kircher, with the allure of a prophetess: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
The story repeatedly jumps to countries where Kircher has been active: Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Mexico. Apart from the light, which effectively changes the atmosphere in the surreal setting, this jumpiness makes it difficult to immerse yourself in the story. They remain panoramas at a distance.
Unfortunately, the urgent, grotesque atmosphere does not have such a good effect in the playing style. Continuously, the same tense atmosphere prevails, with thickly set acting and lavish gestures. Of course there are comical moments, but in general clammy sweat dominates. This tires and, moreover, is a second factor that makes the spectacle remain distant.
The libretto does not make it easy. Not to mention the different languages used interchangeably. This is a nice find, though, in keeping with Kircher's interest in languages, and more generally the all-encompassing atmosphere in which he practised his science.
But what bothers is that the language remains so locked in a chambered seventeenth-century atmosphere. That may provide erudite pleasure and yield shrewd moments, but the question arises: is 'Theatre of the World' an opera of our time? In recent decades, we in the West have lived with the idea that we are hard at work getting the whole world in our scientific and technical grip. This is, of course, a delusion. A delusion that may well be considered. Of course, a work of art should not literally comment on current events. But the potential of art lies in that it can offer tangents, unexpected angles to shake loose entrenched certainties.
That Kircher's Faust-like story is written so far from the twenty-first-century world of thought and experience is a missed opportunity. Even if you opt for the grotesque, you should be able to convey the notion that the life and work of a man like Kircher sheds light on our modern mindset. 'Theatre of the World' is an island opera. You see it in the distance and just can't get any closer, even though you want to. Indeed, the music is so beautiful and exciting and, with its nowhere predictable character, is like a vast and varied landscape in which man must find his way. The vocalists also show many strengths: the pope (Marcel Beekman), who most of all understands the art of the grotesque; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Cristina Zavalloni), who proclaims her wisdoms with her unworldly voice in a radiant frame in the background; the brilliantly dressed witches (Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki and Ingeborg Bröcheler); the young couple in love whose passion bursts forth (Nora Fischer and Martijn Cornet); the wildly boyish Lindsay Kesselman, not to mention the driven roles of Kircher (Leigh Melrose) and Janssonius (Steven Van Watermeulen).
Royal Theatre Carré
Mon 13, di 14, do 16, Fri 17 June, 8pm (introduction: 7.15pm)
Sun 19 June, 1.30pm (introduction: 12.45pm)
Registration is required for the introductions.
There is surtitles in Dutch and English.