Legende, Netherlands Opera, Amsterdam

Mix incest with angels, abuse with yearning, cosmic adventure with cartoon villains, and you get Peter-Jan Wagemans’ Legende, an opera with a plot so confused that not even English surtitles help.

Wednesday’s world premiere at the Netherlands Opera is based on one of the first comic strips, 19th-century Swiss illustrator Rodolphe Töpffer’s The Adventures of Monsieur Cryptogame. That goes part of the way towards explaining its disjunct and opaque style. But only part.

This sprawlingly ambitious epic is Wagemans’ first opera, a vast premiere with cosmic aspirations.

Scored for a cast of 12, a large orchestra with added electronics, an armoury of percussion and a virtuosic chorus, Legende boasts three long acts and a plot that stretches from heaven to earth via the belly of a whale. Wagemans has written his own libretto (almost always a mistake), sketching the adventures of his anti-hero through a series of increasingly bizarre situations. The first act is comical, the second tragic, the third mystical – a mix of stylistic intent that is both dazzling and bemusing.

In Legende, angels fall from heaven, characters change name and identity, a brother and sister share a damaged, incestuous love and butterflies give way to murderous dictators. There are executions, suicides, useless prayers.

Wagemans’ score is deft and derivative, with echoes of Stravinsky, Mahler, Messiaen, Ligeti and more. There are catchy tunes, obsessive repetitions and lyrical lines.

The Netherlands Opera has thrown everything it has at the piece. Director Marcel Sijm and designer Marc Warning have created a pastel-coloured acid trip of a staging; everything moves, inflates, glitters and splatters to keep the action moving. Reinbert de Leeuw steers his musical forces through the diffuse score with a rock-steady hand, and an excellent cast gives its all. As Ursula, Helena Rasker turns the huge third-act aria in which she remembers her father’s sexual abuse into a thing of tragic grandeur. Elzbieta Szmytka’s Nel/Polyandus has grit and sparkle, Yves Saelens brings intelligence and wit to the part of Festus/Frits. The chorus is superb.

None of this is quite enough to make sense of Wagemans’ hallucinogenic opus. Is this garbled sophistication, or sophisticated garble? Legende will not change your life, but it’s quite a trip.

The Netherlands Opera

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