Robin de Raaff is a young Dutch composer whose background mixes training at the Amsterdam Conservatoire, masterclasses with Pierre Boulez and a period as a rock musician. His first opera, Raaff, mixes these influences to create a creditable and credible new opera.
The work was premièred in 2004 by Netherlands Opera, but the composer had in fact been working on it since the 1990s. The libretto is by Janine Brogt, and for once when reviewing a new opera I felt that De Raaff and Brogt had had a clear idea about how to construct it, one based firmly in the conventions of the past, but which evokes new ideas.
The story and title come from the confrontation between Mozart and the tenor Anton Raaff who sang the title role in Mozart's opera Idomeneo at the premiere in Munich. De Raaff and Brogt have moved the plot to the present, set in and around the fictional Victoria's Festival Theatre. There is a confrontation between the composer, M. (Mark Tevis) and the singer Raaff (Marcel Reijans), but M. decides to do away with conventions and produce something new rather than tailoring things to Raaff's old-fashioned prejudices. Torn between them is Dorothea Wendling (Danielle de Niese), a young singer who is Raaff's lover.
The first act, set in the day-time, enacts the struggle between M and Raaff during rehearsals. The shorter second act, which takes place during the evening, is more fragmentary and phantasmagorical as the characters struggle with ideas and themselves, raising questions about what an opera is.
The cast is of mixed nationality and the libretto uses this, being written in three languages. The Dutch characters speak Dutch to themselves, but use English to the foreigners like Dorothea. Then there is the Italian of Mozart's opera which is threaded through the piece as well. This means that the ordinary listener does rather need to follow the libretto, especially as the English diction is sometimes rather occluded.
In addition, De Raaff characterises M. as a modernist, go-ahead person by shadowing his figure with a Fender Rhodes piano and fretless bass guitar.
De Raaff's musical style is not minimal. He mixes a great deal in and much of the opera is conducted at high energy. There are quiet moments, but De Raaff rarely lets his singers rest for long. The combination of the orchestra with the electric instruments and quite a lot of percussion makes for a rich and noisy sound. But De Raaff doesn't overwhelm his singers.
His vocal lines are lyric and singer-friendly, but he does not write tunes as such. The opera is conducted more in continuous arioso rather than recitative and aria, but the orchestra’s comments on the action are almost as important. The whole texture of the piece is quite distinctive and I think I would recognise one of De Raaff's pieces again. The Mozart quotations are neatly woven into the texture, often just fragments, and contribute to the overall feel rather than standing out as awkward quotations.
The opera is admirably compact, lasting around an hour and a quarter, and Brogt's libretto is concise, leaving plenty of space for the music. It reads like a libretto and certainly not like a naturalistic play, which is a big plus point.
The recording was made live, under the musical direction of Lawrence Rees, in a production by Pierre Audi, and the singers certainly give a strong dramatic performance. They really make you feel that drama is happening in the music. Marcel Reijans is a little taxed by the high tenor of the title role, but acquits himself admirably. His lover is played by Danielle de Niese whose role is modelled by the composer on Bess (from Porgy and Bess), though I did not really pick up these influences. De Niese is not a singer I associate with contemporary opera, but here she is entirely at home. The third major role is that of the composer, M., admirably played by Mark Tevis.
These are admirably supported by the smaller roles, Annett Andriesen as Victoria the main sponsor of the Festival, Monique Scholte as Frida an Italian singer and David Wilson-Johnson as Marcello a German singer. The opera also has a role for a castrato, but he is played by an actor, because Brogt comes up with the neat idea that the castrato has a cold so cannot sing!
There is something a little too hip about the concept and the execution of this piece, with its rewriting of history and the slick interjections from rock idioms. But Brogt and De Raaff still bring the piece off well and whatever my objections, they have completed a well constructed and thoroughly thought out opera. They obviously understand what contemporary opera means to them and work through their knowledge of past operas rather than trying to create something which breaks all moulds. The good news is that they are working on a new opera.
The CD booklet contains the libretto in English only, but it indicates which passages are sung in Dutch and English. There are an admirable number of colour pictures from Pierre Audi's stylish production of the opera.
This CD should be of interest to anyone who loves opera and wants to know where it might be going in the 21st century.