The new opera "Writing to Vermeer," by Louis Andriessen and Peter Greenaway, reminds us that artists with distinctive personalities heed their inner voices no matter what's happening around them. An example is Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), a Renaissance painter who specialized in quiet domestic scenes even when social and political turbulence afflicted his Dutch homeland.
For a more current instance, composer Andriessen hews to jagged melodies and spiky rhythms no matter how many minimalist or neo-romantic currents are in vogue. Similarly, writer-director Greenaway carries his preoccupations with him wherever he travels: a love of numbers, a taste for flamboyant images, and a fascination with the tension he sees between artistic abstraction and the daunting challenges of human existence. He usually explores these in movies, but lately he's turned his attention to opera.
"Writing to Vermeer," which opened the Lincoln Center Festival 2000 now on view here, is a walloping theatrical experience and a meditation on the gulf that often separates artistic visions from real-world contexts. The action is propelled by a series of letters supposedly sent to Vermeer in 1672 by members of his household while he was away on business. Actually written by Greenaway, the letters tell of household news - one of his models is looking for a husband, one of the children had an accident - and seem oblivious to the outside world, despite the fact that Holland is suffering from a crash in the tulip market and a threat of French invasion.
The opera contrasts the coziness of Vermeer's correspondence - echoing the intimacy and precision of his paintings - with the traumatic nature of the events tormenting his country. The domestic side of the story is conveyed by the letters (sung to Andriessen's score) and by stage tableaux that gorgeously capture Vermeer's pictorial style. The sociopolitical events are presented via films projected onto large screens - cinematic "windows" revealing a ferocious world that's larger than the household that normally shelters the painter and his brood.
As an adventurous artist who's a family man himself, Greenaway appears to sympathize with Vermeer's pursuit of private ideals regardless of public upheavals. Rather than avoid or deny life's most frightening aspects, though, Greenaway battles their chaotic threats with his own belief in orderliness carried to the point of obsession. Numbers play a key role in this strategy, so it's no accident that the events of "Writing to Vermeer" are organized around five liquids, from the ink used in letter-writing to the blood of a political assassination. The opera's astonishingly inventive stagecraft reaches its climax when Holland's dikes are breached to stymie the foreign invaders - obliterating the stage, the characters, and the opera itself in a stunning overflow of the libretto's last liquid.
"Writing to Vermeer" has the same musical punchiness that marked the previous Greenaway-Andriessen collaboration, "Rosa: The Death of a Composer" (originally titled "Rosa: A Horse Drama"). Greenaway's stagecraft (also credited to Saskia Boddeke, the codirector) contributes so much to the opera's effectiveness that it must be seen to be fully appreciated. One hopes its just-concluded Lincoln Center run will be the first of many American engagements.
*Lincoln Center Festival 2000 continues through July 30 with movies and music by the versatile Meredith Monk; a celebration of French composer Olivier Messiaen; new works by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company; and much more. Information is available at www.lincolncenter.org. 'Rosa: The Death of a Composer' is available on CD from Nonesuch.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society