The closing production at the Holland Festival was the world première of Calliope Tsoupaki’s intriguing and compelling Oidípous. Usually the festival ends with a big international production, but this year, festival director Pierre Audi, and metteur-en-scene for this work, ended his ten-year tenure as festival director with Tsoupaki’s magnetic new piece. She is well known in Holland, but has never quite reached a large audience outside the country – unjustly so, as she creates unique musical amalgamations. Tsoupaki is a Greek-Dutch composer inspired by Messiean, Boulez, and Xenakis. She studied with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and experienced enormous local success with her Lucas Passie in 2008. Her works fit perfectly in the exotic and experimental spectrum of the festival. Tsoupaki’s husband, novelist Edzard Mik, provided the libretto for the oratorio. He quotes the ancient Greek text from Sophocles to which Tsoupaki composed her blend for Baroque instruments: definitely an interesting experience, but not without its flaws. Her new creation is a haunting adaptation of the Greek tragedy. Its mood elicits the thought provoking peace-of-mind that one often finds in lamentations.

Set of <i>Oidípous</i> at the Holland Festival © Janiek Dam
Set of Oidípous at the Holland Festival
© Janiek Dam

On stage, Audi’s direction is typically minimal, but suggestive. This approach often works for strong musical pieces, but in this case, Audi could have added a bit more diversity to the setting.  The director places a large head-shaped bust towards the back overlooking the stage and audience. In the centre, pointing to the audience, lays a large, white, hollowed out cross, on which the singers dressed in impeccable white attire, move around, each holding his or her sheet music. While singing, one by one, sheets are tossed to ground. It’s all rather minimalist. The unconvincing Christian form of Audi’s mis-en-scene together with Tsoupaki’s elements of Baroque music form an unsettling contrast with Greek tragedy. The juxtaposition of Christianity and Greek mythology in Tsoupaki and Audi’s concept seems at first strangely intriguing, but ended up too unexplored. Perhaps that is for us to do, though a bit more suggestive food for thought wouldn’t have hurt.

The orchestra sits in the centre sunken in the cross.  An ensemble of performers from the 90 year old Nederlandse Bachvereniging play authentic Baroque instruments including theorbos, violas da gamba, a cornetto, violone, traverso violin, old trombones and a portative organ. The musicians demonstrated they could handle a modern challenge and brought great warmth to the notes. With these instruments, Tsoupaki concocts an enigmatic oratorio that feels both ancient and modern, mixing Baroque melodies and late 20th century sacred hymns. Harry van der Kamp is good as Oedipus. The always-adventurous Nora Fischer (Iván’s daughter) robustly channels Antigone. Her exploration in different classical performances makes Fischer ideal to act convincingly while singing difficult music. The parts require a lot of vocal control.

Harry van der Kamp (Oedipus) and Nora Fischer (Antigone) © Janiek Dam
Harry van der Kamp (Oedipus) and Nora Fischer (Antigone)
© Janiek Dam

Marcel Beekman, who earlier this month stole the show as the chef in Padding’s Laika, lets his voice outperform the others. His vocal acrobatics for a variety of characters in Oidípous impress greatly. It seems his breath can go on endlessly, only to be cut off by Tsoupaki’s serial explosions. The long vocal lines alternate with brief staccato sequences of serialism on the Baroque instruments. While the audience can drift away during the serene, trance-like, vocal segments, the energetic repetitive musical outbursts bring the listener’s focus back to the content of the story. This very effective narration hinders a completely spellbound state from taking over and kept me consciously involved with the story. But it also was this Oidípous’ Achilles heel. Unfortunately, since those serene parts weren’t long enough and were disrupted too soon to induce a stupor in which to lose track of time, Oidípous feels repetitive and not hypnotic. Perhaps if Tsoupaki expands the length of the oratorio, it could grow into a great mesmerising, stupor-inducing opera, but until then, this was an interesting tease.

***11