Arnoud Noordegraaf’s As Big as the Sky received more than the usual attention at the Holland Festival due to his collaboration with Ai Weiwei. Although still under house-arrest, the renowned, dissenting Chinese artist created an impressive set-piece with hypnotic video-projections. The show bewilders due to the stark contrast of tedious narration with awe-inducing visuals; the inspiring set-piece expressed the work’s concepts better than Adrian Hornsby’s muddled and repetitive libretto. Bas Wiegers conducted the Asko-Schonberg Ensemble through the composer’s inventive synthesis of Wagnerian late-Romantic lyricism and Chinese Kunqu rhythms. As an opera, this can be considered a discombobulated disaster, but as a self-aware piece of multimedia music theatre – a hallmark of this adventurous festival – the work succeeds by captivating through its visuals and innumerable stimulating ideas.

<i>As Big as the Sky</i> © Ada Nieuwendijk
As Big as the Sky
© Ada Nieuwendijk

In 2008, Noordegraaf became fascinated with the Chinese Olympics and the way it transformed the country’s urban scenery. At that time, inspired by Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Puccini's Madame Butterfly, he set out to create this new piece of music theatre. The story follows a megalomaniacal Dutch architect Sem Aers (Martijn Cornet), loosely inspired by Rem Koolhaas, who endeavors to build a larger-than-life dome over a Chinese town. While there, he falls in love with a Chinese Kunqu-opera star Qin Mulan (He Yi), who underneath her traditional garb turns out to be just like every other capitalist diva. Over-emphasising (Mulan!), Hornsby’s narration felt repetitive and several lines came across generic (“China loves the future/It wants it”).

<i>As Big as the Sky</i> © Ada Nieuwendijk
As Big as the Sky
© Ada Nieuwendijk
Noordegraaf keeps Weiwei’s work centrefold, forcing the singers to manoeuvre themselves around it. Two Chinese statues enclose the centre stage while the musicians huddled tightly in the right corner. Hanging low above the centre, the imposing structure designed by Ai Weiwei proved the highpoint of the production. Its framework expressed the Chinese conceptual scheme of a round heaven and a square earth by connecting a circle and square, like a cylinder, covered in a translucent white textile and connected by a giant cavity in its centre. As the libretto constantly changes from character’s perspective, the structure rotates over its axis at an imperceivable rate, constantly providing the audience with a new viewpoint, lending it an Escher-esque quality. On top of that, Weiwei projected recordings of the newly erected architectural landscape of modern China, alternated by vast trash belts and building plans. The relative motion produced by the rotating structure and the fast-moving drone videos made it appear as if the images were swallowed up by the structure, resulting in a captivating experience for the eye.

Another innovative moment occurs, when Noordegraaf assembles eight flatscreens held by stagehands in black, each with a different person (among whom Weiwei, Noordegraaf, and Hornsby themselves). What initially starts out as a cacophony of Skype conversations evolves slowly into the form of a pleasing choir including members of Capella Amsterdam. In this energizing chaos, Noordegraaf created an inventive scene with this multimedia construction.

<i>As Big as the Sky</i> © Ada Nieuwendijk
As Big as the Sky
© Ada Nieuwendijk

With all the stage activity, the music seemed almost secondary. Not at all to belittle the score, the orchestra, or the singers – all performing strongly – but Weiwei’s creativity overshadowed them. Noordegraaf’s music begins with a suspenseful overture laying out the musical style. Eventually the sound functioned more as a cinematic score than as a main element of an opera production. He combines the percussive rhythms and exotic vocal sounds of Kunqu opera with aspects of Wagner’s late-Romanticism. While the Chinese component dominates the score, once in a while a horn or string instrument echoed Wagner’s lyricism. Jelle Verstaten’s electronic soundscapes impressively added a modern vibe to the experience.

The Asko|Schönberg Ensemble, a pioneer in modern music, was up to the task for this dense score. While its two percussionist Ger de Zeeuw and Niels Meliefste successfully evoked Chinese exoticism, it was guest Wu Wei on his sheng (a Chinese mouth organ), that infused the orchestral experience with Chinese authenticity. Yi excelled as Qin Mulan, initially enchanting the audience with her performance of traditional Chinese song and dance, and later wowing the audience as modern-day diva. Cornet’s full, warm voice contradicted his aloof characterization of Sem Aers; although, he comically charmed the audience with his foray into Kunqu opera, emulating the traditional dance and melodic outcries of his Chinese lover Qin Mulan. After Padding’s Laika and Van der Aa’s Sunken Garden, Noordegraaf can count his production to Holland Festival’s successful endeavours into experimental, digital meta-theatre.