Writing to Vermeer
8:00pm, Sat 4 Mar 2000
Short Review: Teeming
Let me guess – you’ve looked at the one-word review and thought, “Teeming? What’s that all about, then?”. Well, in bringing this production to Adelaide, co-directors Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke have created a stunning piece of opera that’s simply teeming with both aural and visual imagery.
As has been well documented in more knowledgeable tomes than this, “Writing to Vermeer” is based around a series of (fictitious) letters sent to the painter Johannes Vermeer from three women: his wife, his mother-in-law and his model. As Frits van der Waa writes in the programme, “Writing to Vermeer is an opera without drama… the narrative is kept to a bare minimum”. Instead, we have an opera which is, for the most part, based upon minor events and domesticities, with just a little bit of Dutch history thrown in.
The most immediately appealling aspect of Vermeer is the visuals; Greenaway’s touch is in abundance here. Several screens are lowered throughout the performance (both in the background and the fore), onto which pre-recorded video imagery is projected. This video footage is used to display Vermeer’s works, imagery supporting the current scene’s themes, or footage that would be impossible to produce onstage (the bloody killings of two brothers being a prime example). Projection was used extensively in the performance – images of flowing water projected onto the main stage produced a stunning effect.
As for the performers – well, they were great (gee, what an understatement). With the exception of the children who introduced most of the “letters”, all singers were strong and precise. On-stage movements (I wouldn’t really call it “choreography”) were minimal, and created the feeling of modest domesticity. Louis Andriessen’s music (which always had a menacing edge to it… or was that just me?) was superbly performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
So, with all this raving, why only give it an 8? Well, to be frank, operas aren’t really my thing, so my opera ears weren’t tuned up… and with this work, I think you really need the dialogue. I mean, imagery can only go so far. Speaking of which, I think
there were a few little over-indulgences… I mean, we’ve all heard about the live cow – but it only had 30 seconds of stage time! Whilst there was video footage of a cow for several minutes!
So, whilst it was a wonderful spectacle, let me offer this advice – if you’re thinking of going, go buy the programme the night before and read the libretto. That way, you’ll be able to enjoy the spectacle without worrying about trying to pick up the plot. Otherwise, make sure those ears are in opera-mode and free of wax.