De Materie: Zeppelins, Confusion, and the ’80s Avant-Garde at the Armory

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De Materie, at the Armory. Photo: Stephanie Berger

I trust no sheep were harmed in the staging of the sort-of-opera De Materie, unless they can be traumatized by grazing on a rubber floor while an orchestra plays hard-edged minimalist music and a small dirigible hovers overhead. Perhaps the director Heiner Goebbels intended the flock of ovine extras to disperse throughout the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall. But sheep will be sheep, and so on opening night they huddled and balked and bleated, and kept trying to exit to safety — or as much safety as a two-hour work of nonlinear music theater would allow. 

The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s score dates from the 1980s, and the current production originated two years ago at the Ruhr Triennial in Germany, but it’s hard to believe the show wasn’t tailored to the extravagantly ample space of the Armory. Where else could four mini-zeppelins perform a kind of airborne square dance, or an orchestra on a rolling platform go gliding across the floor, or a tent city get dismantled in minutes? And yet the magnetic appeal of this show lies not in busy spectacle, but in the way a small gesture or static chord gets intensified by the immensity of the hall. An array of long benches segments the room, each one draped by a black-clad figure in a different angular sprawl, and while the soprano Evgeniya Sotnikova sings words by a 13th-century mystic, you find yourself studying the geometric variety of bodies. Time after time, you stop asking questions, searching for plot, or wondering why a vocal ensemble dressed for a Rembrandt painting is singing a text about shipbuilding. De Materie means “matter,” but for a work about the physical world (ships, atoms, paintings), it can get pretty abstract. 

The work is an opera by default — it has an orchestra and (two) singers, costumes, and lights — but it doesn’t function like one. Any given moment sounds plush and thick and gorgeous, but Andriessen stretches those moments to extreme length. A single musical impulse can drive a half-hour scene. Massive, armored chords — or rather 144 repetitions of the same chord, each colossal as a highway column — ring in the piece, defining its pace and scale. (Conductor Peter Rundel and the International Contemporary Ensemble delivers on the score’s mixture of aggressiveness and meditation.) Echoes of medieval masses, Renaissance madrigals, solemn baroque dances, and '20s jazz clatter through the score, not in the form of a postmodern mishmash, but as architectural frames. The effect is that of wandering through some huge ancient ruin built and battered by many historical eras, its chambers filled with musical dreams. 

The experience of sitting through this work mingles bafflement, awe, pleasure, and frustration. Almost every inventive sound and startling tableau lasts long past boredom into rage. On the night I attended, the damn sheep weren’t the only ones eyeing the exits. But as I emerged into the night, I found my memory had instantly compressed the longueurs, leaving me with a residue of admiration.

De Materie is at the Park Avenue Armory through March 30.