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Music: One for the Queen

2 minute read

One spring night in 1889, a young man named Bernard Shaw sat in an Amsterdam theater watching the first performance of an opera by a Dutch composer named Simon van Milligen. In his report to the London Star, perspicacious young “Corno di Bassetto” (Shaw’s pen name) was kind to the opera, but hooted at the company director’s curtain speech about the triumphant establishment of a great national school of opera.”

Shaw was not tootling his corno out of key. The Dutch have been great creators on canvas, but not so great at creating music. Composer van Milligen’s Brinie barely survived its first performance. A few other Dutch composers put some operatic notes on paper, but without much more success. Last week, for almost the first time in half a century, the Dutch, and their visitors at the fourth annual Holland Festival, were seeing, hearing and enjoying an opera composed by a Hollander.

To honor Queen Wilhelmina’s jubilee, 58-year-old Composer Hendrik Andriessen, director of The Hague’s Royal Conservatory, had written a new score for an old drama. The grisly story, adopted by Dutch Poet Jan Engelman from one of the episodes in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, tells how pure-voiced Philomela is raped by Tereus, her brother-in-law, who cuts out her tongue to enforce her silence. The sisters get revenge by feeding Tereus the remains of his slaughtered son at a banquet. At that point the gods intervene and change all three into birds—Philomela into a nightingale, whose singing is lovelier than ever.

Composer Andriessen’s score was straightforward and melodious, underlining the rising tension of the plot. And he gave his two first-rate Dutch sopranos, Louise de Vries (Philomela) and Greet Koeman (the sister) singing roles that were powerful, dramatic and sometimes rhapsodic. When the curtain came down, the jampacked audience was not quite sure whether it had seen the dawn of a “great national school.” But, said one Amsterdam University professor: “This evening was very encouraging.”

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