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Die Materie: Review by Helen Shaw
A moon-white zeppelin glides through the Park Avenue Armory. Other glowing dirigibles sometimes join it—paper Hindenbergs the size of pick-ups—and they cruise the huge interior, avoiding one another like sharks. When a fearsome god is called for, a black version looms out of a poisonous yellow fog; in a sweeter moment, an airship herds a flock of milling, flustered sheep. In Heiner Goebbels's mesmerizing staging of Louis Andriessen's 1988 Die Materie, these weightless vehicles act as the cool gaze of history, blind observers of all man hath wrought.
Andriessen's postmodern opera consists of four movements; not one of them mentions blimps. The first sequence juxtaposes instructions for building a boat with Dutch declaration of independence from Spain and the 17th-century scientist Gorlaeus's statements on atomic theory. The second scene is an aria built from the rhapsodic writings of the mystic Hadewijch, a poetess with erotic visions of Christ. The third breaks into a cheerful deconstructed rag, celebrating Piet Mondrian (a woman reads reminiscences). The fourth uses spoken text from Marie Curie's speeches and journal. The matter seems encyclopedic (if persistently Dutch), but all four segments actually share the same concern: the human ability to build theories about the world, to see their component parts and to experience their motion as a dance. De Materie is sensuously philosophical—this is an opera about operations. Its pleasures lie in the experience of letting its logic dawn over you and in feeling the moment that its gears mesh.
Visually, it's a triumph. Goebbels keeps us constantly aware of the vastness of the space (designed by Klaus Grünberg). We experience it first as a moonlit industrial park (white huts shining a vivid Klein blue), then a cathedral (Hadewijch's yellow-fog sanctuary) and even—as the leviathans drift through—a coral reef. Not every moment is equally beautiful: The Mondrian tableau involves a massive cast of dancers flipping white-blue-red-yellow cards, which is disappointingly literal, and the Curie sequence is an anticlimax. But the good parts aren't just good; they're unforgettable. Goebbels revisits the aesthetic of those grand, '80s, Robert Wilson–esque stage pictures, and this time, he invests them with astonishing life. He even incorporates chaos itself, as embodied by the (slightly smelly) sheep. Unprompted, they flock like starlings, stampeding themselves into accidental choreographies.
Even if Goebbels weren't providing the mise en scène, De Materie would be a don't-miss event. Andriessen's music slides between chilling minimalism and rousing industrial dissonance, bracketed by long sequences of insistent, forceful chords; the stuttering rhythms leave you physically anxious. There are passages that sound like whales calling through the sea, others that borrow from boogie-woogie and the Lindy Hop. All this is given a roof-raising incarnation by the Chorwerk Ruhr and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who follow conductor Peter Rundel with palpable relish. The singers, particularly Evgeniya Sotnikova as Hadewijch, invest the material with terrific passion.
My only quibble: the miking of singers has gone amok. It has no specificity. Huge rock-concert speaker groupings disassociate the sound from the people making it, and poor Hadewijch seems to be singing from an array 40 feet away from where she stands. The piece is full of intentional distances—the audience is pushed back (the orchestra takes up nearly all of what would be the first bank of seats) and the zeppelins have their own Olympian perspective. But the piece is also about humans and their little human discoveries. Mustn't let the machines take that, too.—Helen Shaw
Park Avenue Armory. Composed and written by Louis Andriessen. Directed by Heiner Goebbels. With ICE, the Chorwerk Ruhr and others. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission.