French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier is at least as famous for how he died as for the music he wrote. In 1983, while living in Paris, a male prostitute he had brought back to his flat stabbed and killed him. Eerily, at the time of his murder, Vivier was working on a piece called Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) whose text is a first-person narrative about a man named Claude who is stabbed in the heart on a subway train by a young man he has just met. Composer György Ligeti and Reinbert de Leeuw, recognizing a truly original voice, did much to bring Vivier's music to international attention, and to keep it there.
Vivier was fascinated by Marco Polo, so calling a retrospective of his music "Dreams of a Marco Polo" makes sense. This retrospective, as assembled by de Leeuw and stage director Pierre Audi, has been configured into a so-called "opéra fleuve" – an entertainment in two parts. The first part is solely comprised of his opera Kopernikus, and the second part of six shorter works, including what was completed of Glaubst du. At one point, Vivier had suggested that his music could be assembled in such a way, so what de Leeuw and Audi have done really is not such a stretch. The final product contains almost all of his most important works. Given that most CDs of Vivier's music have gone out of print, this assemblage is a blessing.
Vivier studied with Gilles Tremblay and Stockhausen, and he also was influenced by Asian cultures and by electronic music, although his use of electronic instruments is relatively infrequent. His music feels ritualistic. At times, it is even static. It is intensely lyrical, but not necessarily pleasant; listeners need to meet the composer halfway. Vivier's interest in unusual instrumental and vocal timbres creates an idiosyncratic sound-world. One of his favorite devices is to have singers move their hands back and forth in front of their mouths – a "vocal tremolo" effect, if you will.
These performances date from 2004 and are associated with the Netherlands Opera, which is appropriate, as even the instrumental works (Shiraz, for solo piano, and Zipangu, for string orchestra) have been presented in a theatrical manner. In Kopernikus, the eight instrumentalists even become part of the opera; they wear makeup and costumes, and they interact with the cast members.
Kopernikus is not an operatic biography of the Polish astronomer. Instead, this "ritual opera of death" seems to take place in a sort of purgatory – a space between life and death – into which a woman named Agni has come. A parallel is drawn between Agni and Alice in Wonderland, and many other parallels as well. As is sometimes the case in Vivier's work, the text is largely comprised of invented words, so it is left up to the viewer to construct a plot… or not, as he or she wishes. Nevertheless, there are "appearances" (after a fashion) by Lewis Carroll, Tristan and Isolde, Mozart, and Copernicus himself. Audi has staged this opera in a giant sandbox littered with wooden crates, of which some are suspiciously coffin-like. The characters are dressed in white and sometimes hide or wrap themselves in large sheets of padding. As the characters and the musicians interact in mysterious ways, the atmosphere is fraught with expectancy, drama, and sometimes humor. Ligeti's Aventures and Nouvelles aventures seem to have been antecedents to Kopernikus, but Vivier takes the idea much farther.
Not surprisingly, the disparate works in the second half of the evening don't hold together as well, but it's neither because of the music itself nor the performances. The fragmentary Glaubst du opens and closes the second half, and Audi has found an arresting visual equivalent to the music's text and subtext. Shiraz is a punishingly virtuosic work, and it makes pianist Marc Couroux (also in costume and makeup, and cruelly spotlit) into both a victim and a perpetrator. The other works are turned into arresting slices of music theater. Lonely Child, perhaps Vivier's "greatest hit," is a striking aria for soprano (Susan Narucki) and chamber ensemble. Another musically and emotionally searing testament to isolation and to the yearning for social connectedness is Wo bist du, Licht!, which features mezzo Kathryn Harries – her eye sockets blacked in to give her a spectral appearance. Zipangu includes some of the most unearthly string sonorities to be put down on paper since Penderecki's work in the 1960s. ("Zipangu" is an archaic name for Japan.)
Rêves d'un Marco Polo is both rewarding and exhausting; it would be good to limit yourself to Kopernikus one night and to continue to the second part of the program the next. Like a rite whose function outsiders cannot easily explain, it attracts us and yet holds us tantalizingly at arm's length. I believe its theatricality would have appealed to Vivier. I don't doubt that the performances would have. De Leeuw has been devoting himself to Vivier's cause for a long time now, and he knows this music as well as anyone. He has surrounded himself with instrumentalists, singers, and theater people who are no less able nor committed to advancing the cause of this enigmatic composer.
This set contains a fascinating 66-minute documentary on the composer by Cherry Duyns. Each part of the "opéra fleuve" is preceded by a 15-minute introduction, which includes interviews with de Leeuw and Audi. These, too, are worth watching, although it is frustrating that their materials overlap each other to such a degree. Lighting is problematic at times – either too much or too little – and there are some very brief dropouts in the audio, but apart from that, this set both sounds and looks great.
Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle