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Arts: Waving, not drowning

PETER GREENAWAY has moved into opera, bringing all the trademarks of his film work with him: a chorus of cherubic children, eviscerated naked adults, the relentless calligraphy of a moving quill and stunning camerawork from Reinier Van Brummelen.

Van Brummelen, who has brought many of Greenaway's cinematic projects alive, is now recreating the paintings of Johannes Vermeer on five screens above the main stage at Amsterdam's Muziektheatr where Writing to Vermeer, Greenaway's 90-minute domestic opera, unfolds to the music of arch Dutch modernist, Louis Andriessen.

As one might expect of anything touched by Greenaway, this is a stunning production to look at. It opens with the three women soloists - Susan Narucki, Susan Bickley and Barbara Hannigan - writing letters to the artist while he is absent from Delft. It is 1672, and Vermeer has gone to The Hague to authenticate some paintings. His wife (Narucki); mother-in-law (Bickley); and model (Hannigan) relate how domestic life continues without him, and tell Vermeer how much he's missed. Greenaway originally conceived it as a chamber piece, and admits its serenity trespasses into the territory of male fantasy.

It was Andriessen and Greenaway's co-director, Saskia Boddeke, who turned the domestic idyll into something more dramatic - and traumatic. She interpolated tableaux of the troubled times in which Vermeer lived, while Andriessen's music underscored the letters with anxiety. They may be singing about the joy of home life, but are worried how long it will last.

Andriessen's three soloists made their mark well on the opening night, although a bizarre directorial device ensured that each was cloaked by two dancers in identical costume who copied the singer's every gesture. At times, this made it difficult to see whose voice we were listening to - substance being surrendered to style.

Yet Boddeke and Greenaway created a feast of projected images from Brummelen's camera work, even using vertical projection to pinion the singers within a landscape of beautifully written letters. But the real star of this show was the water. Boddeke had early on asserted her intention to get more water on to the stage of the Muziektheatr than ever before, and she succeeded. Vermeer's three women sang surrounded by a lake while increasing amounts of water poured down on them. The rationale behind this extraordinary gesture was that in 1672, the Dutch breached their own dikes to flood out the French army. According to Greenaway, the ensuing economic crisis ruined Vermeer and the domestic harmony he had celebrated in his pictures.

Whether the painter's death two years later can really be traced to the infamous Dutch Flood is questionable, but it provoked a great finale. As conductor Reinbert de Leeuw brought the music to an end, the water roared on, fulfilling the anxiety in the score.

Opera is not staged on this scale in Britain. Maybe we are too wary of being thought pretentious, or haven't enough money. But we also don't have people with Greenaway's kind of vision working here. He creates continuous magic on the operatic stage, something that's needed in British opera.

Adrian Mourby