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Louis Andriessen: Writing to Vermeer reviews

(February 2000)

Louis Andriessen’s most recent theatrical collaboration with Peter Greenaway was unveiled to great acclaim at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam on 1 December, forming the grand finale to the composer’s 60th birthday year. The highly original production by Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke, exploring Greenaway’s interest in calligraphy as an artform and his search for new ways to integrate cinematic imagery with live performance, travelled to the Adelaide Festival in March and Lincoln Center in New York in July. Writing to Vermeer is the third collaboration between Andriessen and Greenaway, following on from the film M is for Man, Music Mozart (1991) and the opera ROSA, The death of a composer (1994).



The serenity, loving domesticity and all-female cast of Writing to Vermeer provides a sharp contrast to the violent film-noir action of ROSA. The new opera explores the warmth and objective distance which are essential qualities of Vermeer’s paintings, leading Andriessen to create one of his most lyrical scores, clearly influenced by the aesthetic stance of Ravel and pursuing his love of French music in general. With projections of Vermeer’s painting on stage, the artist and his work provide the focal point for the drama as a whole, yet he is absent from the stage as a character:

"In May 1672 Vermeer left his home in Delft for two weeks to visit The Hague and advise on the purchase of some Italian old masters. Greenaway’s charming conceit is to imagine that the three most important women in the artist’s life - his wife, his mother-in-law and his model - wrote constantly to Vermeer during his brief absence, and it is these three fictitious correspondences, 18 letters altogether, that make up the libretto. The tone is gentle, intimate and affectionate - these are love letters of a kind that conjure up an image of cosy domesticity that is unaffected by events in the wider world... Yet that particular year, was a crucial one in Dutch history, for it signalled the end of the country’s golden age. The French invaded Holland, and the only way to stop them was to open the dykes and flood the countryside... These greater, more sinister historical issues form the backdrop to the intimacies of Writing to Vermeer, and the flood forms its climax.

"Andriessen’s remarkable score is full of singing and singable vocal lines for the three women protagonists and uses a quartet of children’s voices with wonderful wit and charm... Though the Stravinskyan hard edges of Andriessen’s earlier music make occasional appearances, much more is transparent and lyrical, totally economical in its use of notes. What is most impressive, though, is the perfect integration of all the elements in the work: how Greenaway has been able to carry over so much of his cinematographic techniques into his stage pictures, how Andriessen’s music fleshes out the characterisations, and how everything is superbly realised in the theatre." The Guardian

"Andriessen has created a richly refined, highly fractured, mirror-like score... There is a light, transparent quality of tone, which is at first still, then progressively more agitated with swirling undercurrents. This ‘Polaroid of a Baroque Orchestra’, as the composer has described it, was not captured fleetingly by Reinbert de Leeuw and his Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble, but with precision and enthusiasm." Die Welt

"Vermeer as a musical jewel... Louis Andriessen has written beautiful, tuneful music, which has the capacity to appeal to a large audience. With his unique blending of diverse musical styles, he strikes a masterly balance between the melodiousness of a lighter vein and the severity of a more hard-edged idiom." De Volkskrant, Amsterdam

"Andriessen creates in Writing to Vermeer a soundworld which is a model of lightness and tenderness, without quitting the rebellious rhythms and harmonies that are always a part of his make-up. These strike up more and more ominously - with the Sweelinck adaptations that Andriessen provides, heard in the innocent tinkling of a harpsichord or satanically disguised as a trombone hooting. The music is masterly." Algemeen Dagblad, Amsterdam

"...one of Andriessen’s richest and most poetic scores..." The GuardianWriting to Vermeer
Music-theatre work
Libretto by Peter Greenaway



Netherlands Opera
Reinbert de Leeuw conductor
Peter Greenaway director

1/4/7/9/12 December 1999, Amsterdam 
13/18/21/23/25 January 2000, Amsterdam
2/4/5/7 March 2000, Adelaide Festival
11/13/14/15 July 2000, Lincoln Center, New York


> Further information on Work: Writing to Vermeer



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