By Alan Rich
From LAweekly.com - Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Claude Vivier was born in Montreal in 1948 to anonymous parents, raised in an orphanage and then by foster parents named Vivier. Honored eventually as a brilliant if disturbing composer, he ended up in Paris, where, at 34, he was stabbed to death in his apartment by a young man he had picked up in a bar. On his worktable there was found a completed manuscript, a cantata for voices and orchestra whose narrator tells of cruising a young man who then stabs him to death; the piece ends with the same sudden shock, and then silence, that took place in Vivier’s room.
In the hourlong documentary that is part of Dreams of a Marco Polo, a new two-disc DVD produced by Opus Arte and distributed here by Naxos, a Canadian friend of Vivier’s reads some of the composer’s last letters, which talk of suicide in the most haunting way; there are also hints that another project, which he never began, was to be a dramatic work in which the despairing Tchaikovsky, naked and in full acceptance of his homosexuality, confronts the ways of taking his own life. The DVD set — discs and cover alike — is all in black, as it should be.
In 1971, at 23, Vivier had attracted good notices in Canada, and was sent to Europe on a stipend. There he joined the circle around Karlheinz Stockhausen (who, the story goes, was repelled by the stink of his ancient sheepskin jacket — see photo) and developed his own powerful insights into music as ritual, music as a function of color, music saturated with the scents and the sense of the East. By the time of his death, his praise had been sung by György Ligeti and by the enterprising leadership of the Netherlands Opera. The 150 minutes of Vivier’s music that fills out this extraordinary DVD set has been pieced together by the Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw (who brought us Louis Andriessen’s music during the Minimalist Jukebox, and who becomes a compelling, wise presence as video host) and the Netherlands Opera’s Pierre Audi. Powerful, insinuating, drenched in a restless passion, it is by some distance the strongest music by a Canadian composer I have ever heard, the first I have heard that stands absolutely free from the shadow of that country’s southern neighbor.
Overall, the sequence has been given the name Dreams of a Marco Polo, assuming Vivier himself as the self-proclaimed restless wanderer through many worlds. It begins with his short opera Kopernikus, subtitled “a ritual opera of death,” which involves not so much the medieval scientist as it does real and mythical figures (Lewis Carroll, Merlin, Tristan . . .) around whom dazzling, blinding light images take shape. Into a “Marco Polo” collage several of Vivier’s shorter works have been blended, including Lonely Child, achingly sad evocations of a neglected childhood, set for soprano and ethereal strings. The sense of suffering builds; the final work is the piece on the table in the fateful room. “Do you believe,” the chorus intones, “in the immortality of the soul,” with that “immortality” in German — “unSTERBlichkeit” — itself like a dagger’s thrust. I find a comparable shock, actually, in the impact of this whole astonishing program.