The Dutch composer, Rob Zuidam, created another successful opera in 2010. After his previous work, Rage d’amours, a well-received musical drama about Juana la Loca; a woman who refused to be separated from her departed husband, Rob Zuidam presented us with Sister Bertken, another opera about a woman who was a more than a little bit odd.
The opera is about nun Berta Jacobs who, in 1526 at the age of 30, withdrew herself from the world to live in a small brick room that she had built around herself measuring less than 4 m x 4 m in the Buurkerk Church in Utrecht. From there, the only things she could see were the altar and the street behind the church, from where people would provide her with food and drink in exchange for some pious words of revelation. In her self-imposed cell, Sister Berta, or Sister Bertken gave herself over to prayer and writing poems in which she revealed religious vistas and visions that were the antithesis of her claustrophobic daily life. She remained in her cell until she died at the age of 87 and was buried there.
Zuidam was particularly inspired by the unconditional surrender of Sister Berta to a life of devotion or, perhaps more accurately, to an all-consuming love. "I feel a tiny spark in me," she sings in the first part Die werelt, and that tiny spark grows into an enormous heavenly flame that she cannot or does not want to put out. Zuidam has not only composed enthralling music of great harmonic and melodic power to accompany her story but has also succeeded in maintaining that level for the entire opera, which lasts over an hour.
The part called Requiem aeternam, in which she officially says farewell to this life with the blessing of the prior, is also stunning. The bass baritone Hubert Claessens, who not only sings the part of the prior but also plays some animated phrases on the tenor saxophone in between, plays an exceptional role here.
But the most beautiful part of all is the following one, Mi quam een schoon geluit, in which soprano Katrien Baerts plays the role of Berta and steals everyone's heart with very softly yet very penetratingly sung lines that are completely embedded in ethereal and extremely transparent sounds from the ensemble: heavenly sounds of angels from another world. Of course, Berta was simply hallucinating in her lonely cell, but Zuidam does a masterly job of translating her trip into exceptionally beautiful music.
Katrien Baerts manages to steal the show, once again, in Hemelsche opclimminghe, this time with a very full and open soprano voice.
In the meantime, the Asko/Schönberg ensemble, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, also delivers an exemplary performance. Hopefully the sounds of this opera will reach the right people and Zuidam’s career will also develop further internationally. It's already become clear that he is an extremely talented opera composer, and we have not been blessed with very many such composers over the last few centuries, to put it mildly.
So what is the secret of Zuidam’s music? Well, it's characterized by a very warm humanity, embedded in mellifluous harmonies and beautiful melodies with an unmistakable tonal component. And you won't catch Zuidam going down paths that have been trodden time and time again. Olivier Messiaen and, in particular, Claude Vivier, are never all that far away, but there are much worse sources of inspiration imaginable and, besides, Zuidam injects his own unmistakable creative identity into his work.
A truly beautiful opera.
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