The audience jump to their feet the minute conductor Markus Stenz lowers his baton after the final notes of The Rise of Spinoza have drifted away in the ample acoustics of the big hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Groot Omroepkoor and soloists are cheered for minutes. Well deserved, for Stenz steered his forces with a strict, but supple hand through this new and colourful one-act opera from the 84-year old Theo Loevendie.

When the composer finally sets – a somewhat shaky – foot on the stage, the audience bursts out in an even louder applause. Waves of warmth flow towards Loevendie, who is a purebred Amsterdammer if ever there was one. He grew up as the stepson of a market vendor in Amsterdam West, and became fascinated by Baruch Spinoza, his fellow townsman from the 17th century. Spinoza’s philosophy that God is to be found in nature appealed to the young Loevendie: “As an agnostic, I am wary of religious dogma,” he declared.

So when NTR ZaterdagMatinee asked him to compose a short opera for a double bill with Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex, Loevendie decided to fulfil his lifelong dream. He wrote his own libretto (in English), focussing on one tragic moment in Spinoza’s life. In 1656 the philosopher was banished from the Jewish community because of his ‘atheist’ motto Deus sive natura (God or nature). This not only shocked his fellow Jews, but also the Catholics and protestants, and in the end Spinoza was even expelled from Amsterdam by the city council.

Though set in the 17th century, the opera is strikingly topical. Like Loevendie, the soft-spoken Spinoza follows his reason and can’t accept religious dogma. Be it from his own Jewish community, the catholic faith Spanish and Portuguese Jews adopted to escape persecution, or the many protestant factions claiming the ‘true faith’ in the Netherlands. Spinoza may not be decapitated, but the wording of the kherem (curse) is extremely harsh: “May he be condemned by day and by night […] nobody may be under the same roof with him, nor approach him closer than four yards, nobody may read any paper written by him.” 

The Rise of Spinoza opens with dark, mysterious rumblings from the orchestra in a darkened hall. The lights go on slowly to fervent cries from market vendors: “butterrrrr, cheese, eggs!” in loud, polyrhythmic, yet minutely notated cacophony. This may indeed be “the longest market scene in operatic history” as Loevendie asserts, yet the intended effect of hearing ‘fishwives’ and ‘peddlers’ gets a bit lost in the all too sophisticated interpretation of the singers of the Groot Omroepkoor.

A lucky strike is the introduction of Jacob van Eyck, a blind recorder player and composer who weaves the scenes together as an objective onlooker. When Spinoza has a discussion with his former mentor rabbi Morteira, Van Eyck (a sovereign Erik Bosgraaf) slowly paces the hall from right to left, playing a sopranino recorder in virtuosic, bird-like melodies. In the second scene François van den Ende exhorts Spinoza to become a catholic, yet the young philosopher indignantly refuses because of the murderous doings of the Inquisition. Van Eyck breaks the tension with a folk-like melody that is taken up by the orchestra, the jaunty music forming a welcome counterpoint to the serious issues at hand.

Loevendie chose a countertenor (Tim Mead) for the role of Spinoza, both to symbolize the philosopher’s isolation and stress his kind-heartedness. Spinoza has touching, lyrical lines, especially in the moments when his burgeoning love for Clara flares up. Yet, however competent a singer Tim Mead may be, he did not quite bring across his smouldering affection, nor his agonies and doubts in the confrontations with Van den Ende and rabbi Morteira. By contrast, the bass-baritone Hubert Claessens commands the stage with his mesmerizing presence and utterly convincing impersonation of the forbidding rabbi.

Loevendie’s treatment of both the orchestra and choir is refined and varied, and the libretto is compact and convincing. Compelling are the chanted slogans and rhythmic clapping of the choir, the frenzied dissonance in the orchestra at times of stress, and the subtle, almost romantic harmonies at moments of more quietude. The vocal parts of the soloists are unusually tuneful and singable. With the 45 minute long The Rise of Spinoza Loevendie has wrought an attractive opera that may well become part of the repertoire. 

It formed a worthy double bill with Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex. This oratorio about the Greek hero who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, was performed after the interval. Stenz again led his forces with formidable precision through Stravinsky’s inescapably tragic score, with it’s furious ostinati and broad harmonic spectrum. The Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur blew us off our socks with his strong voice and regal tenure. Yvonne Naef vividly brought to life his wife/mother Jocaste with her resonant mezzo soprano, the bass Dimitry Ivashchenko was an agile Tiresias, and the Flemish reciter Benoît de Leersnyder held the audience captivated with his perfect diction. 

With this concert NTR ZaterdagMatinee once again proved the value of radio concert series, because these can programme just a bit more adventurous than orchestras and choirs that have to keep a keen eye on the box-office. This double bill also showed the audience is not a priori afraid of contemporary music: the hall was packed and the acclaim was staggering.