NEW YORK (AP) — Heiner Goebbels knew he wanted to work with sheep.
The German director is using 100 of them in his production of Louis Andriessen’s “De Materie (Matter),” which premiered in the German city of Duisburg as part of the 2014 Ruhrtriennale and opened at the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall on Tuesday night. Only a year after the debut did Goebbels realize the genesis of his desire.
“I’ve recalled a scene of my youth,” he said, thinking back to when his dad took him to watch gliders at an airport with nearby livestock. “But it was not a conscious decision.”
At first, Goebbels wasn’t sure where to use the quadrupeds in the four-scene work for tenor, soprano, spoken voice, chorus and dancers.
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“I thought maybe the first act or the second, or maybe they would dance boogie-woogie — probably not,” he said. “We invited some sheep to rehearsal, and by trying out we found out that it goes so well together with the fourth act.”
This was the North American staged premiere of “De Materie,” a 110-minute work whose previous staged production was by Robert Wilson in Amsterdam in 1989.
Opening with 144 fortissimo chords that accelerate — Andriessen wanted sounds of an Amsterdam shipyard — the composition features many styles and focuses on the Dutch declaration of independence from Spain in the 16th century, the architecture of the Reims cathedral in France, painter Piet Mondrian and the Polish-French physicist Marie Curie.
“What have they in common? The Dutch language, the subject about matter, about things,” the 75-year-old Andriessen said this week. “Sometimes the spirit materializes in the second part, which is about visions of a religious person in the 1400s.”
Working with set and lighting designer Klaus Gruenberg, Goebbels creates four unforgettable tableaus — six blue-lit houses with three white zeppelins overhead; a church illuminated from high in yellow, which brought to mind Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project” at the Tate Modern in 2003-04; a silver curtain that served as a backdrop for changing Mondrian-colored circles bouncing around on long, dark rods; and then, of course, the sheep, under a dull blue glow with a single zeppelin overhead.
Zeppelins were Gruenberg’s inspiration.
“He wanted to work with a zeppelin. I wanted to work with sheep,” Goebbels said. “And it went very well together.”
Andriessen, whose opera “Writing to Vermeer” was a highlight of the 2000 Lincoln Center Festival, starts off with an eight-man chorus and opens with two movements that pay tribute to Bach, but in a modernist way with syncopating percussion and shimmering keyboards. The boogie-woogie comes into play in the third movement, when the International Contemporary Ensemble and conductor Peter Rundel rolled on a rail to the center of the hall as Gauthier Dedieu and Niklas Taffner danced to Florian Bilbao’s choreography.
The sheep — identified as from the Pennsylvania country — brought about giggles from the audience as they roamed about the hall with intermittent baaaas; four out-of-sight shepherds guided them. The Curie scene, where she reads excerpts from her diary and her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, serves as a coda.
Evgeniya Sotnikova (soprano) and Catherine Milliken (Curie’s spoken voice) repeated their roles from two years ago and Pascal Charbonneau took over as the tenor. While all three lent dramatic vigor with the voices, the visuals were the stars.
“I do try to avoid basically almost all cliches of the tonal music, up to Debussy, Ravel,” Andriessen said. “For me, with modernism — also in the visual arts — there sort of starts my life.”