The UK premiere of Louis Andriessen's latest opera, Writing to Vermeer, closed the South Bank's festival of his music in a fascinating concert performance by the London Sinfonietta and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
The piece is Andriessen's third collaboration with Peter Greenaway, and Greenaway's libretto eschews every operatic convention. The hero of the piece never makes an appearance, and the only three characters in the opera are Catharina, Vermeer's wife; Maria, his mother-in-law; and Saskia, his model.
The whole, 100-minute work consists of imaginary letters written by the three women to Vermeer during the spring of 1672. Nothing, in essence, happens. The letters relate scenes of mundane domesticity, like a child swallowing varnish, or Saskia's attempts to be with her lover. Andriessen's score captures the intimacy of Vermeer's paintings, which were projected above the players throughout the Sinfonietta's performance.
The rigorous structures of the six scenes mirror the formalism of Vermeer's creative world. Unusually for Andriessen, the soundworld of the opera is dominated by the upper strings, which complement the high register of the soloists' voices.
The effect is of a serene stasis in the opening scenes, and the music conjures a luminous intensity, as if Andriessen had transformed the magical light in Vermeer's paintings into music. All three of the soloists - Susan Bickley as Maria, Susan Narucki as Catharina, and Barbara Hannigan as Saskia - revealed a lucid clarity in Andriessen's vocal writing. The New London Children's Choir and Synergy Vocals provided a halo of vocal sonority, framing the drama of each scene.
Yet as the piece progresses, this serene domesticity is shattered by the noises of the outside world. Fragments of electronic music, composed by Michael van der Aa, puncture the drama: miniature soundscapes based on events of contemporary Dutch history. And Andriessen's music in the later scenes becomes more volatile and violent, as the women plead with Vermeer to come home. In the final scene, their declarations of love reach a peak of intensity, and Andriessen creates a musical wave that finally becomes an electro-acoustic torrent of sound.