United States Adès, Dante: Gen X Festival, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 29.4.2022. (DD)
Dante (U.S. premiere, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Royal Ballet) – I. Inferno, II. Purgatorio, III. Paradiso
There is no end to the reading of great books. However, it remains unchallenged that there are a handful of books which stand above most others and are an absolute necessity for one’s understanding and appreciation of literature. These include selected Greek and Roman dramas, books from Old and New Testaments, poems and plays from Ancient Greece through to the present and a barge-load of novels: from War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and Jane Eyre to Tom Jones, Madam Bovary and Pride and Prejudice. And there are so many more titles that could easily elbow their way onto this list of exceptional works.
There is one book to be found on virtually every round-up of ‘necessary books’: La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) by Italian poet Dante Alighieri, written in the first and second decades of the fourteenth century (c. 1310-1320). Dante stands alongside writers and philosophers beginning with Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides through to our present day and including, of course, Shakespeare. It is an assemblage that tops the literary stratosphere, a place that has long been and remains firmly well-assured. (Dorothy Sayer’s translation of Dante, incidentally, remains in my opinion one of, if not the best English versions.)
Thomas Adès’s decision to draw on Dante’s trio – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – was inspiration of the highest sort and resulted in a work of breathtaking brilliance. La Divina Commedia moves from the depths of human misery to the pinnacle of ecstasy, and Adès does wonderful things to make that inspiration authentic. Among his many remarkable choices in Inferno are the cloyingly miserable (and effective) repetition of ‘The Selfish’ and ‘The Ferryman’ sections, which reminded me, to a degree, of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle: it is both beautiful and forbidding. The ‘Pavane of Souls in Limbo’ section is an astounding mixture of fear and hope, augmented with textures that bend their ways through the complex structures, only to be deepened by the tonal succession given to ‘The Gluttons’. That sequence begins slowly and without direction and reaches a dissonance that does not end happily ever after. Each of the Inferno sections demonstrates its own musical curiosity, but one episode held particular interest for me: ‘The Deviants’ with its quasi-circus music which will end differently than where it began.
Following the intermission, the music and story that accompany this tale moved to Purgatorio and progressed gradually but directly through the mountains and seas of Purgatory with a final ascent to Paradiso. Again, Adès firmly guides the audience through the musical journey, and Paradiso responds with the musical awakening of the planets and stars, eventually lighting the empyreal sky with the well-tempered sounds of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the singing and playing of the heavens and beyond. (It is so wonderful to understand what empyreal really means, even when you are sitting in a closed auditorium with your eyes shut.) The eventual closure cannot be easily explained nor described but is profound. Just what is being said? There is, of course, no firm answer, but composer Adès’s statement is probably the most interesting, especially in its succinct point: ‘I’ve never felt so close to damnation and paradise and redemption’.
Nor have I.