De Volkskrant daily newspaper, Art & Culture section, 6 December 2010
The extraordinary women of Robert Zuidam
Around the year 1456, Berta Jacobs-daughter had herself incarcerated in a hermitage cell, specially built for her against the wall of the church called Buurkerk in Utrecht. She there remained enclosed for fifty-seven years until she died at the age of 87. It sounds hardly possible to write an opera about such a static subject, but Robert Zuidam, the composer who turns whatever he touches into gold and is gifted with great dramatic insight, has succeeded once again.
Zuidam is obviously intrigued by women who gave extraordinary turns to their lives: his opera Freeze was about the millionaire’s daughter Patricia Hearst who joined a group of terrorists, while in Rage d'amours he became absorbed in Joanna the Mad who travelled for years through Spain with the corpse of her deceased husband.
The composer usually produces his own libretti. For his one-act opera Suster Bertken, which lasts forty-five minutes, he drew on the religious tracts written by the recluse. The text is therefore in beautiful Early Dutch and in Latin. There are only two characters: Bertken and Prior Dirck van Malsen, sung by the soprano Katrien Baerts and the baritone Hubert Claessens respectively. James Dugan and Leopold Benedict, two choir boys from England, sing the voice of Jesus.
During the opening night, with the Asko/Schönberg ensemble and Reinbert de Leeuw conducting, it became obvious that Zuidam managed, more so than ever, to absorb many different styles into his music. It is still multifaceted, but at the same time shows greater compactness. Zuidam possesses a feeling unrivalled in the Netherlands for music’s power to give voice to mysticism. Initially the music changes character dramatically, because Zuidam wishes to contrast the noisy outside world with Bertken’s need for contemplation. Equally theatrical is the entry of Claessens, the Prior who alternates singing with playing the baritone sax. This may be a bit of an anachronism, but Zuidam isn't the kind of man to leave such a double talent unused; it is highly effective, and so are the loud blows with which the Prior piles up the bricks lying ready on the stage.
What follows then, boosted by a sober recorder, is an immersion in hallowed calm which many a composer of ‘spiritual’ music would be wise to take as an example. Even when he restricts himself to a simple minor scale, Zuidam succeeds in surprising and enchanting us with unusual sound mixtures and subtle tendrils of sound, ephemeral as wisps of smoke.
After the incarceration scene, Bertken has an important vision in which she identifies with the pregnant Virgin Mary and embarks on an ascent to heaven. Majestic parallel major mixtures and bell chords enhance the experience, and lead her to an ecstatic apotheosis. Here the boys enter the stage and the strings take over from the wind instruments. This is Katrien Baerts’s true moment of glory; she is a young Belgian soprano with an unspoilt, beguiling sound manifestly based on a strong technical foundation.
What we need now is an opera company that will embark on a scenic performance of Suster Bertken – but it will require a director with a strong sense of the supernatural.
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