Double Dutch Treat: Two Wonderful Shows in Amsterdam

Two days in The Netherlands’ capital and a surprise gift: the premieres of new productions of ‘L’Orfeo’ and ‘The Fountainhead.’

Jan Versweyveld

On my way to a family visit in The Netherlands, I found myself with two free days in Amsterdam. One does not need to have business planned in Amsterdam, with its welcoming attitude toward tourists and its pleasant, dreamy atmosphere, but my professional conscience still pricked me. So without expecting too much, I found out what was going on in the evenings.

During a random conversation with friends, I discovered that my two-day stay in Amsterdam just happened to coincide with an excellent time to visit the theater. The day I landed, the Dutch National Opera (just opposite the hotel where I was staying, so I can plan in advance after all) was staging its premiere performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo.”

It was a joint production by Dutch National Opera, Les Thétres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Bergen International Festival of Norway, Opéra de Lille, Freiburg Baroque Consort and Vocalconsort Berlin. This is the reality of cultural productions in Europe, particularly in fields such as opera, which require a great deal of resources. But the interesting thing about this production was not the groups or ensembles involved, but the director and choreographer – Sasha Waltz. The members of her dance troupe, Sasha Waltz & Guests, were the main performers, alongside vocal soloists who also danced wonderfully.

Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” – first performed in 1607, with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio – is a milestone in the history of opera. It is considered the first to combine instrumental and vocal music with a dramatic plot presented with movement and words upon the stage. It is where the very name of the art form was born. “L’Orfeo” is not only a cantata (a sung work) or only a sonata, a work for instruments alone. It is all these things together, hence the term “opera,” or “work” – the original, literal meaning of that Italian word.

The very first opera

And what story could be more fitting for the very first opera than that of Orfeo, the musician who captured nature – and the heart of his beloved – with his music; loses her when she dies of a snakebite (which causes Eurydice to move from a living paradise to Hades); and succeeds in rescuing her thanks to his music, only to lose her again when he breaks the condition of not looking back (Lot’s wife sends her regards).

But it is more than that. The entire prologue is an appearance by La Musica, sung by Anna Lucia Richter, who also sings the role of Eurydice during the opera.

When the curtain opened, the audience saw a large, light-colored wooden gate. To its left was a baroque orchestra: strings, woodwinds and a harpsichord. On the other side of the gate were two theorbos (a theorbo is a large, ancient stringed instrument resembling a large lute), percussion and four trombones.

The conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, directed his ensemble from a harpsichord (or maybe it was a kind of organ) in the front row of the audience, between the two orchestras.

The well-known plot was presented to the audience, starting with La Musica’s monologue, telling of her ability to ignite love and cool a burning heart. Richter danced beautifully during the monologue, together with a female dancer – their upper torsos held forward and their arms moving up and backward, as the soft sounds of the baroque ensemble mingled and competed with the rougher, and perhaps more primal and pagan, sound of the instruments on the right.

In the second part of the opera, the gate slipped slightly downward, creating a large, bright surface for movement between both orchestras, where the dancers held branches in their hands to create the orchard in which Eurydice is bitten by the snake. Then, on the same surface, Orfeo rows on the River Lethe and brings Eurydice back to the land of the living – when the Furies steal her from him at the last moment. Fortunately, Apollo arrives in the nick of time – coming from the back of the auditorium, accompanied by four trombonists – to lift the wretched Orfeo to the heavens with him, to celebrate music together.

During the opera, video excerpts were shown on the screen, giving depth and beauty to the stage. Also, the two groups of musicians moved from side to side on stage, creating a unique harmony of sound, color, voice, image, movement, death, life and music. And I got to see all of that in its first realization on the stage.

On the state of journalism

The next day, I learned that the Dutch Theater Festival had opened in the Municipal Theatre of Amsterdam. The festival is a competition of the year’s best shows in The Netherlands. Director Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” was featured on its first evening (and my second and last evening in Amsterdam). The next performance was a show by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, of which van Hove is the artistic director.

Van Hove often adapts works for the stage. I saw his “Antonioni Project,” an adaptation of three films by the Italian director, and he has also done stage adaptations of Ingmar Bergman movies. He says that when he adapts films, his point of reference is the screenplay, not the film. When he deals with the plot of a book, his point of departure – and that of Jan Versweyveld, his partner in life and work, and the one in charge of lighting – is the theatrical space that is created.

The work space of van Hove, Versweyveld and their actors is special indeed: A large black cube, which looks like it was assembled and attached to the backside of the Municipal Theatre building. Seating for the audience comprises about 55 percent of the cube’s area, in bleachers whose last row (where I sat) is close to the ceiling. The rest of the space is the acting area, which is not raised and has no curtains – everything is exposed. Onstage and in the back is a system of musical and electronic instruments that create a live soundtrack of background music, an urban tumult of life and nature.

“The Fountainhead” is the story of a woman in a world of male architects. A great deal has been written about the ideas of the author, Rand; and about the individual who is loyal to himself (Howard Roark, who under certain conditions could be a kind of Hitler, and Dominique, the liberated woman who devotes herself to the man she has chosen) against those who wish to please others.

Three drafting tables are on the stage. One is from the office of Guy Francon, the successful architect and father of the beautiful Dominique (who is an architecture critic). Peter Keating, a manipulative architect who bows to convention and desires prestige, flatters his way into Francon’s firm. The second drafting table is from the office of Henry Cameron, a stubborn and unsuccessful architect who employs Roark after the latter is expelled from his architecture school for refusing to adhere to its conventionalism. The third table, in the middle, is a long drafting table where the successful Keating and Roark – who is fighting for his right to be true to himself in his building designs – work in turn.

A large screen stands farther upstage. A video camera installed over the drafting tables records the architects at work: the page, the head bowed over it, the hands that sketch, erase, revise, invent and dismiss. The picture is shown on the screen. The audience watches the events unfolding from two points of view, which create disorientation: what am I actually seeing? The other characters move among events and their on-screen portrayal, sharpening the uncertainty.

Roark and Dominique (played by Halina Reijn, one of best-known, most popular and most-appreciated actresses of Dutch theater; a tall beauty with very long legs on very high heels) develop a lust-fueled, animalistic, destructive and limiting relationship. When Dominique finds Roark after he has failed as an architect and gone to work in a quarry, he as good as rapes her. We watch it happen as she leans on the table, with him behind her. At the same time, we see the image as seen from above projected onto the screen.

Later, an image of a wrinkled sheet is projected. Dominique goes up onstage, undresses completely and walks behind the video screen, where we see her standing on the sheet. Roark (played by Ramzi Nassar, the only one whose face is shown on the screen in close-up, as his expression reacts to what the others say) goes onstage, also nude, joins Dominique on the sheet and we see this intercourse, like a kind of mating ritual between them.

I describe this to illustrate the unique visual experience, which includes identification and wonder at the complex structure whose methods are revealed to the audience. And none of this comes at the expense of clarifying the plot and the powerful philosophical struggle at its root. The text is spoken and also projected in Dutch and English surtitles over the stage. I recommend that anyone who would like to learn something about contemporary journalism read the book’s chapter about the publisher Gail Wynand; it is doubtful whether such accurate statements about the power and weakness of populist journalism have been uttered in our day. (Rand wrote them in 1943, and 12 publishers rejected her novel at the time.)

I do not know whether this was a “good” show or a “bad” one, or if it is faithful to the book. I can only say that it was more than four hours of an intellectual, emotional and aesthetic experience, a kind of journey I experienced with several hundred people in an imaginary and very tangible world.

Two premieres of shows that will probably be touring festivals in Europe, over two unplanned days. Who could ask for more?