19 Jun 2009
Goerne and Eschenbach : Winterreise
When Matthias Goerne was six, he heard Winterreise and was captivated.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
Henri Dutilleux’s music has its devotees. I am yet to join their ranks, but had no reason to think this was not an admirable performance of his song-cycle Correspondances.
In 1980, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned composer John Corigliano to write an opera celebrating the company’s one-hundredth anniversary. It was to be ready in 1983.
English National Opera’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata had many elements in common with the production’s original outing in 2013 (The production was a co-production with Opera Graz, where it had debuted in 2011).
You might believe you could go to an opera and take in what you see at face value. But if you did that just now in Lyon you would have had no idea what was going on.
I wonder whether we need a new way of thinking — and talking — about operatic ‘revivals’. Perhaps the term is more meaningful when it comes to works that have been dead and buried for years, before being rediscovered by subsequent generations.
Hopefully this brilliant new production of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Grand Théâtre de Genève will find its way to the new world now that Gluck’s masterpiece has been introduced to American audiences.
Tristan first appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Capitole in 1928, sung in French, the same language that served its 1942 production even with Wehrmacht tanks parked in front of the opera house.
Arizona Opera presented Eugene Onegin during and 1999-2000 season and again on February 1 of this year as part of the 2014-2015 season. In this country Onegin is not a crowd pleaser like La Bohème or Carmen, but its story is believable and its music melodic and memorable. Just hum the beginning of the “Polonaise” and your friends will know the music, if not where it comes from.
Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall in Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. Matthias Goerne has called Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch the Winterreise of the 20th century. Boesch and Vignoles showed how Krenek’s Reisebuch is a journey of discovery into identity at an era of extreme social change. It is a parable, indeed, of modern times.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new Anna Bolena, a production shared with Minnesota Opera, features a distinguished cast including several notable premieres.
On Tuesday January 27, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. It is the opera with which the company opened in 1965 and a work that the company has faithfully performed every five years since then.
Last year we tracked Orfeo on his desperate search for his lost Euridice, through the labyrinths and studio spaces of Central St Martin’s; this year we were plunged into Macbeth’s tragic pursuit of power in the bare blackness of the CSM’s Platform Theatre.
Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911 and based upon a libretto by the Hungarian writer Béla Balázs, was not initially a success.
Káťa Kabanová is, they say, Janáček's first mature opera — it comes a mere 20 years after his masterpiece, Jenůfa.
When Matthias Goerne was six, he heard Winterreise and was captivated.
Obviously, he was too young to understand all the complex emotions in the piece but what he recognized was that they mattered. Winterreise is so powerful that even a child, albeit a talented one, could be inspired to commit it to memory.
There have been hundreds of Winterreises at the Wigmore Hall over the years. This is an audience that knows the work bar by bar and isn’t easily impressed, so when most of the house stood up in applause it was serious praise indeed. I first heard Goerne sing Winterreise some 15 years ago, near the start of his adult career (he was a child prodigy in East Germany). He was only 26, yet Irwin Gage was playing, and Alfred Brendel was listening in the stalls, rapt with attention. Goerne and Brendel became a legendary partnership, creating some of the finest Schubert performances ever produced. Their recording of Winterreise is one of the must-hear classics.
Christoph Eschenbach is a superlative Schubert performer too, so this new series of Schubert cycles at the Wigmore Hall is a significant event. Goerne and Eschenbach have already recorded Die schöne Mullerin as part of the new Harmonia Mundi Schubert Edition. Goerne’s earlier recording of that cycle is exceptional. Quite frankly, you can’t “know” that cycle without having heard that recording, because it puts paid to the myth that the cycle is sweet and innocent. Darker undercurrents almost always flow through the Romantic.
With Eschenbach, Goerne’s refining his approach to Winterreise yet again, this time even more cognizant of the structural underpinnings beneath the text. Each song marks a different stage in the journey, and those stages are in themselves significant, to be savoured for what they portend. The journey starts in a huff, the protagonist impulsively dashing out of town, the wind images in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ expressing turbulent confusion. Gradually the woman who caused the problem fades into a more generalised image on which the man can hang his feelings. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is a temporary halt, a short moment of calm before “Die kalten Winde bliesen..” Then the true impact of the words “ich wendete mich nicht” sinks in.
This is a psychological journey, away from the town and its bourgeois values. The protagonist is out in the wilderness, in uncharted territory, where only animal spoor marks a path. Thus Goerne and Eschenbach employ a deliberate, watchful pace: paying close attention to each passage, every detail counts. Eschenbach even brought out the faint pre echo of the posthorn that appears as early as ‘Der Lindenbaum’. Similarly, the village dogs appear, in the rhythms that start ‘Im Dorfe’.
Landscape is important in Winterreise: it is a mirror of the protagonist’s soul. Schubert builds images of nature into the piano part not merely to illustrate text, but to act as an alter ego, almost a third party commentary beyond the protagonist’s highly subjective anguish. Pathetic fallacy operates, of course, for the protagonist hears his troubles reflected in the storm and swollen river, and sees frost patterns as flowers. But there’s infinitely more to the idea of Nature in the Romantic imagination. It stands as a symbol of something greater than mankind, something that endures beyond the personal and immediate.
This has implications for interpretation. Some performances depend on exaggeratedly emotional singing, on the assumption that the protagonist must be mad, since he gives up civilization to follow a crazy old beggar. Thus follows the idea that the journey can only end in death. But that trivializes the whole logic behind the cycle. If the protagonist is mad, why are we so drawn into this psychodrama? Wilhelm Muller – and Schubert – wanted us to experience the journey through the man’s feelings, to sympathize with why someone should choose a wilder path in life. Perhaps in more psychologically repressed times the idea of madness and death prevailed but for the Romantics angst was a code for what we now call the subconscious. The Romantic interest in emotional extremes was a reaction to the tidy elegance of classicism. Schubert’s contemporaries were troubled by the world Winterreise revealed, and rightly so.
The protagonist is driven to his limits but never loses sight of the world around him, even though he interprets it in terms of himself, for example when he thinks the crow is a companion. In that sense he’s not a depressive, turned entirely away from reality. Some point to ‘Der Nebensoonen’ as evidence that the man must be nuts if he sees three suns in the sky. But it’s a physical phenomenon that in extreme cold, the sun appears distorted in this way. For a century, we’ve become so used to electricity and urban living that we can’t imagine such things as reality. Goerne sings with quiet, understated dignity, as if he’s witnessing a miracle in nature. True, the protagonist still sees the eyes of his beloved wrought as huge cosmic images in the sky, but perhaps there’s something more.
The cycle ends with the strange hurdy-gurdy of ‘Der Leiermann’. The Leier isn’t a lyre, but a primitive instrument, turned rather than played, making a mechanical circular sound. The old man is “Baarfuss auf dem Eise”, barefoot on the ice, exposed to the elements, without a shred of bourgeois respectabilty. And yet he doggedly makes his way from village to village, despite being hounded by dogs and men. “Wunderlicher Alter!” sings the protagonist, what kind of phenomenom is this? Orpheus in rags?
Goerne sings the final sentence with overwhelming grace and wonder. “Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Lieier drehn?” Will the man follow the old beggar, who perhaps once set out on a similar journey? Perhaps he’s like the crow, whose companionship is coincidental not real. But the old man is human and plays a vaguely musical instrument. Perhaps he’s a symbol of the power of music, which like Nature endures whatever may happen to an individual. Throughout the cycle, the rhythms of the hurdy gurdy and lurching footsteps lurk in the shifts of pace and intensity. The Leiermann haunts the whole piece, though it takes performance of this very high standard to bring them out.
|Sehnsucht||An mein Herz||Die schöne Müllerin|