Planet Opera: In Amsterdam, Sharing Moments with History

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Think of opera and the Netherlands and, unless you are familiar with the scene, you might come up with The Flying Dutchman (which actually is set in Norway) and perhaps name a couple of conductors and singers. But there is a rich musical culture here. This city, a place I have visited intermittently but with pleasure since 1976, always drew me more for its splendid museums and its connections to my native New York. It was the only major European city in which I had never seen an opera.

Last week I traveled to Amsterdam specifically because the Netherlands Opera was presenting a rare, fully-staged production of Guillaume Tell. This magnificent opera is Rossini’s last and often called his masterpiece, though I rank it second to Semiramide. Nonetheless, one almost never gets to see it and my interest was further piqued when I discovered it is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, where it was last heard in 1931 under the baton of Tullio Serafin.

The Amsterdam Tell had a superb cast. John Osborn sang the fiendishly hard tenor role of Arnold with aplomb. Marina Rebeka made an affecting Mathilde, singing with lyrical warmth. I was very moved by Nicola Alaimo’s performance of  Tell. He struck me as a cross between Nabucco and Hans Sachs and was the core of the opera despite the impressive vocalism of Osborn and Rebeka. Paolo Carignani led a vibrant and fluid performance of this great score, with nimble playing from the orchestra and marvelous work by the chorus.

The production is more than good enough and the couple of reservations I had can be fixed if so desired. It was directed by Pierre Audi, who has been the head of the Netherlands Opera since 1988. It was jarring to watch performers walking around the stage during the amazing overture. All one needs then is to listen to get completely in the mood for what will follow. Although the characters did not appear for the whole overture, their presence unnecessarily spoiled the opening. Otherwise, the director told the complex story well, though he did not need to have Osborn dart around during his Act III showstopper “Asile Hereditaire.” This is a moment where you just want the tenor to stand and sing.

My other problem is that the costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer range in color from white to cream to gray to silver to black. This was visually confusing and did not effectively support the narrative. The scenery by George Tsypin is a bit clunky and would not be to everyone’s taste, but worked well enough. I loved the lighting by Jean Kalman, who I think is one of the best designers now at work.

A Lively Opera District

A particular characteristic of life in Amsterdam is the nearly untranslatable and unpronounceable word gezellig. It implies a cozy sociability much prized by local people as part of their sense of self. This is evident during the intermissions at the Muziektheater when almost the entire audience of 1600 feasts on sweet and savory foods while drinking good wine (4 euros/$5.40 a glass).

The Netherlands Opera turns 50 in the 2014-15 season. The Opera typically presents 11 productions per season. The company makes 23.2 percent of its income in ticket sales and the rest comes from subsidies and donations. It will present two complete Ring cycles in the winter of 2014. Its home, Het Musiektheater (right), is the home to the Opera and the Dutch National Ballet. It opened in 1986 and has a large, modern stage that can respond to large scenic demands. 

I learned that many locals refer to the building as “Stopera.” The term dates back to the controversy and riots that erupted when a large swath of 16th and 17th century buildings in the Jewish quarter were destroyed to build the Musiktheater and large adjacent municipal buildings. This district is worth exploring. Behind the opera is the Moses and Aaron Church, on the site where the philosopher Spinoza was born. Liszt performed in this church and it is still an important cultural venue. Nearby is what remains of the Jewish Quarter, including the Portuguese Synagogue, the Jewish Museum and the Resistance Museum.

Do not fail to visit the Hollandsche Schouwburg, about 10 minutes by foot from the Opera. From 1892 to 1942 this was a music and theater venue with operetta. One of the last shows, during the Nazi occupation, was The Czardas Princess. The performers were all Jewish, as was the audience (Jews were no longer allowed to perform for non-Jews). The Nazis converted the theater into a place where Jews were gathered (often by receiving an invitation) and then captured and deported. Ultimately, 104,000 Dutch Jews were exterminated. Of the countless memorials I have seen to victims of the Holocaust, this is one of the most affecting.

Had I only traveled to hear Guillaume Tell, it would have been well worth the trip, but I used the occasion to do a brief but very full immersion in the riches of musical Amsterdam. The city is most famous for its superb orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw, which Gramophone magazine described in 2008 as the world’s greatest. It is currently in New York as part of its tour celebrating its 125th anniversary. At home, this ensemble performs in a splendid concert hall of which the Dutch are justifiably proud. The orchestra will perform a concert version of Der fliegende Holländer on May 24 and 26 in Amsterdam, with Andris Nelsons conducting Kwanchul Youn, Anja Kampe, Christopher Ventris and Jane Henschel.

A couple of blocks behind the Concertgebouw (left) is the very gezellig Cafe Welling (Jan Willem Brouwers Straat 32), a snug gathering place for, as a friend observed, “writers, artists, musicians and a lot of alcoholics.” We spotted the Dutch composer Theo Lovendie, now at work on an opera about Spinoza. This is the kind of place that gives you a real sense of Amsterdam life.

The city has many places to hear excellent instrumental and vocal music. The Stadsschouwburg is an important venue since 1894 that was the home of the Dutch National Opera until the Musiektheater opened. The Musiekgebouw, opened in 2005, is another excellent place for music that includes vocal recitals. Look for the estimable Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra. Then there is Barokopera Amsterdam, which specializes in chamber opera from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The works of Purcell figure prominently in its repertory. The Carré is a grand space for circus, musicals and visiting companies. During my stay, the Stanislavski Opera from Russia presented a straightforward and idiomatic Eugene Onegin.

Print to Parks

In a time when most cities are losing bookstores, and shops that sell music are almost non-existent, a measure of Amsterdam’s virtues is that it is a place where musicians can purchase sheet music from knowledgeable vendors. Historically, this is one of the foremost music publishing cities, not only for quantity but the quality of the work. The compositions of Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli were best preserved here, as is the violin instruction book by Leopold Mozart. Two stores not to miss are Broekmans next to the Concertgebouw and the super-gezellig Musiekhandel Saul B. Groen, where the owner and his colleague Meindert C. de Heer have sold music with love since 1967. They also are music publishers. Groen said to me, “We know we are the last of the Mohicans in the sheet music world.”

Another Amsterdam musical event that is very gezellig is the annual canal concert in the elegant Prinsengracht. This is the equivalent of concerts in New York’s Central Park and London’s Hyde Park. People arrive in their small boats from all over the city and cluster together in the canal. One can step from one boat to the next to visit, have a drink or something to eat or puff on, and then, when the performance begins, lie back in the moonlight as the boats gently bob. I had the great pleasure to hear Thomas Hampson in this setting in 2007. This year, the Concertgebouw Orchestra will perform on Aug. 24.

The orchestra is not the only Dutch musical ambassador. There are the estimable conductors Jaap van Zweden (Music Director of the Dallas Symphony) and Bernard Haitink, who had a long association with the Royal Opera in London and opens the new season of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers this October with the London Symphony Orchestra. Dutch violinists Janine Jansen and Simone Lamsma are top virtuosos. Eva-Maria Westbroek is one of the most exciting sopranos in opera today, playing everyone from Anna Nicole Smith (right) to Francesca da Rimini (at the Met in March). Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn is less well-known but is a rising artist whom I heard in recital in the smaller theater of the Concertgebouw.

One of the foremost Dutch singers, soprano Elly Ameling, is now retired. She did not do much opera but was a paragon on the recital stage. You hear gezellig in her direct and warm communication. There was a simplicity to her performance style that was without pretension and being mannered, but nonetheless was artistry at its most profound. Listen to her singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1982:

Photos: 1) Het Musiektheater (Fred Plotkin) 2) The Concertgebouw (danielabsilva) 3) Eva-Maria Westbroek (Royal Opera House)