19 Jun 2009
Goerne and Eschenbach : Winterreise
When Matthias Goerne was six, he heard Winterreise and was captivated.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
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|