Thursday, September 18, 2014
"La Commedia", a "video opera" film by Hal Hartley and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, based on Dante
“La Commedia” is presented on DVD by Nonesuch Records and Possible Films as a new art form: a movie, or a stage opera, together, take your pick. The set is sold with a conventional film DVD, and 2 music CD’s. The inspiration for the work is Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.
The filmmaker is Hal Hartley (American), known for iconoclastic independent film that mixes morality play with sci-fi. Well, I like to do that. The composer is the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (B 1939), with some additional electronic music by Anke Brouwer (and a touch of Debussy). The format of the film is to present the “modern story” as like black-and-white silent film, as the opera is sung, and in performance the film is to be projected onto a screen. The DVD intersperses the “silent film” with some of the stage performance by the Dutch National Opera, in garish colors, like for the “Blue Barge”, and with translucent spherical pods that seem to come right out of “Alien”.
The cast includes Jeroen Willens as Lucifer and Caccidaguida, Claron McFadden as Beatrice, Christina Zavolloni as Dante, and Marcel Beeman as Casella.
The opera-film is in five sections: (1) “The City of Dis, or the Ship of Fools”; (2) Racconto Dall’Inferno; (3) Lucifer; (4) The Garden of Earthy Delights; (5) Luce Etterna ("Eternal Light").
The first three sections start in the “Inferno”, which in the video is modern day Amsterdam. But this seems like no city of gay pleasure; it seems like an extraterrestrial place, a gateway to existential challenges. The second part takes place largely “On the Beach”, which might indeed be a reference to Nevil Shute. (I have seen the 1959 film with its “Waltzing Matilda” conclusion.) The film though returns to the city, which to me is not necessarily as logical as would be a consistent geographic progression on another world. (Clive Barker, in his book “Imajica”, which has to become a film some day, moves back and forth among the different “dominions” because of “reconciliation”, an idea that might be in play here. At the end of the book, we see Heaven, as a super-city, like in China, not what it is made out to be.) The “Purgatory” section is the “garden”, and it hardly recalls the corresponding movement in Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. It starts on a boat with lovers kissing, with Dante as one of them, and we really don’t know whether this is a man and woman or a lesbian pairing, nor should we care. Procreation is no longer possible. In Purgatory, the minions have to move in unison, like soldiers in D-and-C; and there are casualties.
In “Heaven”, well, we’re often back in Amsterdam, and it’s hard to say how it is changed. Maybe it’s the modern city, well after the Nazis were driven out. As David Lynch said in “Eraserhead” (that is, the Lady in the Radiatior), “In heaven everything is fine”. That would really work here.
There is some dialogue by Lucifer at a bar in Heaven. No subtitles; good thing that Dutch is pretty close to English. Then “the prodigal children” run back “on the beach” as the world around them disappears into white light,
The music during the closing credits ends loudly and triumphantly (in A Major), unusual in modern opera.
The very detailed notes on the Nonesuch set are written by Brooklyn-based composer-pianist Timo Andres. To my knowledge, this Timo’s first association with a “film” but I think there will be more. (I think he would create a real presence in film as an actor, but that’s another day.) As I watched, I recalled another “Timo”, that is Belgian-Flemish-Dutch singer-actor Timo Descamps, and his role in a preview clip of a sci-fi film “Floating” where paradise is not what it seems. “TimO” is a good name to have.
The Nonesuch link is here.
The film runs 105 minutes.
The title “The Comedy” recalls the fall of 1962 when I was a “patient” at NIH (while the Cuban Missile Crisis broiled outside). My relation with the other patients was somewhat strained, and I called all the goings-on in the unit “La grande comedie”. The therapists and nurses didn’t like to hear that.