Switzerland Stefan Wirth, Girl with a Pearl Earring: Soloists, Philharmonia Zürich / Peter Rundel (conductor). Zurich Opera, 29.4.2022. (RP)
Librettist – Philip Littell
Director – Ted Huffman
Stage design – Andrew Lieberman
Costumes – Annemarie Woods
Lighting – Franck Evin
Assistant choreographer – Sonoko Kamimura
Dramaturgy – Fabio Dietsche
Griet – Lauren Snouffer
Jan Vermeer – Thomas Hampson
Catharina Vermeer – Laura Aikin
Maria Thins – Liliana Nikiteanu
Pieter – Yannick Debus
Tanneke – Irène Friedli
Van Ruijven – Iain Milne
Griet’s mother – Sarah Castle
Child engine – Lisa Tatin
Cornelia – Sava Baumgartner
Maertge – Eleonore Zweig
Lisbeth – Joséphine Jacob
‘An unsung hero’ is how composer Stefan Wirth describes Griet, the title character in his Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is nearing the end of its run at Zurich Opera after premiering there in early April 2022. Little is known of the Dutch Baroque painter Jan Vermeer’s life and nothing of the young woman whom he immortalized in his painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Griet is the creation of Tracy Chevalier in her 1999 novel of the same name, which was later adapted for a film with Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet.
Philip Littell has crafted a libretto that distills the backstory Chevalier invented for the girl in the painting to its essence. Griet is forced into servitude in Vermeer’s home when her father is blinded in an accident at the tile factory where he works. The artist’s wife, Catharina, and her daughters, especially Cornelia, take an instant dislike to Griet. The daughters taunt her, while the wife intuitively senses the dangers of having such a pretty girl around.
Maria Thins, Catharina’s mother and the owner of the house in which they live, takes a more transactional approach to Griet, sensing that she has a purpose in the home that rises above the ordinary.
Griet catches the eye of a persistent and ultimately successful suitor, Pieter, the young butcher from whom the family buys its meat, as well as Vermeer’s patron, the lascivious van Ruijven. Vermeer, aloof and oblivious to most of what happens on the domestic front, notices how Griet arranges the vegetables she is preparing for soup, thus discovering her sensitivity to color, light and balance. Their bond transcends the physical but nonetheless jeopardizes Griet’s place in the household and, potentially, in the strict Protestant society of which she is a part.
Ted Huffman’s concept for the opera is strong on characterization but affords little in the way of the visual. Surprisingly, there is not a painting to be seen. Soft lighting, no set to speak of and the near constant revolving stage create an otherworldly, disorienting atmosphere. The only real color is the heavily pregnant Catharina’s gold dress and a vase of orange and yellow flowers. Griet, too, will don gold cloth when she sits for Vermeer.
It is if Huffman intuitively sensed that the visual would be unable to compete and would, perhaps, diminish the musical impact of Wirth’s tonal environment. It is music of the present, but Catharina plays the harpsichord when entertaining Van Ruijven and his family. As with Huffman’s use of color, the music of the period seems to belong only to the domestic sphere, not to the world which Vermeer and Griet inhabit.
Wirth’s writing for the voice, while short on melody, is strong in expressing emotion and establishing character. Griet and Vermeer sing primarily in the comfortable middle of their respective ranges, as do most of the other characters, although Catharina and Cornelia are more often heard screeching in the stratosphere. Most importantly, Wirth is exceptionally adroit at crafting softer, transparent orchestral accompaniments to the vocal lines so that the singers can always be heard.
It is the orchestral score, however, that instantly envelops one in Griet’s world. Much of the music is strident, often with piercing woodwinds and brass heightening the tension, and some of the sounds that emerge from the pit are little more than noise. The entire opera house becomes an echo chamber for Griet’s emotions when bells peal throughout the theater. Silence is the preserve of those moments which find Griet in her fiercest struggles to balance the reality of her workaday existence and the aesthetic realm which she inhabits with Vermeer.
For all the intensity of Vermeer and Griet’s relationship, it is never consummated except through the music. Sensing that something is lacking in the painting, a realization that Griet came to before him, Vermeer insists that she wear his wife’s pearl earrings. Her ears are not pierced, and Vermeer forcibly makes the holes to an extended, dissonant screech from the orchestra that is as unbearable to listen to as the scene is to watch.
Wirth has accompanied Thomas Hampson in recital, and the baritone played the role of Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses for which Littell wrote the libretto. Their intimate knowledge of Hampson’s voice and artistry undoubtedly contributed to their creation of the character of Vermeer, in which they provided the singer with a role that is the perfect capstone to his long career.
Hampson’s Vermeer captured the artist’s self-absorption and disinterest in anything that does not relate to his art. For those who have followed Hampson’s career from the beginning, it was a reminder of why, as a young singer, he made such an impact on the operatic stage and as a song recitalist. To those experiencing Hampson for the first time, it affords the opportunity to experience him in total command of his vocal and dramatic powers.
Lauren Snouffer’s immersion in the character of Griet was as fascinating to watch as it was to hear. There was no doubt that she was singing, but her voice emerged so free and natural that it was as if she was speaking her lines rather than singing Wirth’s challenging music. With Snouffer, Wirth not only found a hero but a singer of remarkable abilities to first sing Griet.
During the curtain calls, it seemed as if Hampson was passing the torch to the young American singer. In the mid-1980s, Hampson’s appearances in Mozart roles in Zurich caught the attention of James Levine who brought him to the Metropolitan Opera. With luck, Snouffer’s extraordinary performance as Griet will achieve something similar for her.
The rest of the cast was also excellent. As Pieter, bass Yannick Debus, with his winning, natural sensuality, was strong of voice and resolute in his pursuit of Griet. Laura Aikin was grand and haughty as Catharina, as was Sava Baumgartner as her daughter, Cornelia. Their vocal histrionics were both equally brilliant and unsettlingly alike. Two longstanding members of the company, Liliana Nikiteanu as Maria Thins and Irène Friedli as her maid, Tanneke, also contributed richly detailed characterizations both vocally and dramatically.
Peter Rundel led the Philharmonia Zürich in a compelling performance of Wirth’s complex score that heightened the intense personal drama on stage. Under his baton, phrases unfolded in much the same way as if he had been conducting an opera by Puccini; the vocal lines were accompanied by thinner, transparent orchestral textures that swelled into crushing torrents of sound when the vocal line ended. He was fearless in pushing the orchestra to produce sounds that could be terrifyingly ugly.
For his first opera, Wirth was wise to look to the musical past at times when composing Girl with a Pearl Earring. And he was exceptionally fortunate in the forces that the Zurich Opera assembled to give his riveting new opera life.