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Reviews

18 Oct 2019

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Zauberland at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Julia Bullock

Photo credit: Patrick Berger

 

‘[A] fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog, wrote Friedrich Schlegel (Athenaeumsfragment 206). For Schlegel, the fragment is ‘complete in itself’ but remains ‘incomplete’: in its opposition to other fragments within the ‘surrounding world’, it reveals the world to be a ‘chaotic universality’ of antagonistic elements.

Like Schlegel’s hedgehog, the individual songs of Dichterliebe are broken pieces, complete in themselves but implying a larger whole, one which they can never represent. The song-cycle epitomises the negative dialectic of early Romantic poetry which emphasises possibility rather than closure and strives, in Novalis’s words, to ‘represent the Unrepresentable’. The Romantic ‘Self’, too, is fragmentary, never fully ‘knowable’. And, from these ‘gaps’ arises our longing to see and know, a desire that can never be fulfilled but that we strive to achieve through art.

One might see Schumann’s music as the poetry of the fragmented Romantic Self. Piano and voice are autonomous and interdependent; symbiotic entities seeking the elusive Other. The poems which form Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo similarly eschew coherence. The text does not present a linear narrative, but rather is a self-reflective network of repeating images - birds and flowers, stars and angels - associated with love. A sort of dream sequence of suggestion.

So, in some ways the decision by Bernard Foccroulle and Martin Crimp to view Schumann’s omission of four of his settings of the twenty poems from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo when he published Dichterliebe in 1844 - another ‘gap’ - as an invitation to ‘intervene … and finally to extend’ is a logical one. Zauberland begins by presenting the sixteen poems of Dichterliebe, with a single ‘intervention’, and then takes the piano postlude to Schumann’s final song as a starting point from which to continue the self-reflective discourse through a new cycle by Foccroulle which sets poems by Crimp.

It’s a venture which works best at a musical level. After all, Schumann’s cycle begins falteringly with a melody that seems to have begun playing elsewhere, before we hear a sound. And often the songs seem to dissolve, tonality and text unresolved, only to emerge from the silence and continue their searching in the following song. Foccroulle’s initial translucent piano textures and gestures of rippling limpidity sit comfortably alongside Schumann’s inconclusive and harmonically ambiguous utterings. And if Foccroulle’s language grows progressively more discordant and aggressive, finding its own voice as its canvas expands, then that seems fitting, and a natural response to the unfolding text.

Zauberland 5 © Patrick Berger.jpg Photo credit: Patrick Berger.

The impact made by the performance of Zauberland in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House was in no small part owing to the superb performances of soprano Julia Bullock and, especially, pianist Cédric Tiberghien. Bullock seemed more at home with Foccroulle’s more extrovert vocal idiom, but sang Schumann’s songs with integrity of feeling, capturing their increasing darkness. In Tiberghien’s hands, the piano’s cascading teardrops were hauntingly beautiful, conveying at the start of the cycle the delicate wistfulness of remembered happiness, capturing the cold bitterness which creeps in almost imperceptibly, and etching the ambiguous rhythmic gestures with wonderful clarity.

Crimp’s text, and its dramatic interpretation by director Katie Mitchell, were less successful. The dreams and fairy tales which pervade the later poems of Heine’s cycle - when we enter Zauberland where green trees sing melodies from the beginning of time and vague shapes rise up, a strange dancing chorus, out of the earth - seem to have provided Crimp and Foccroulle with their point of departure. Zauberland presents the journey of a young woman, five months pregnant, who has been forced to leave Syria and who arrives at a European border checkpoint, hoping to enter Germany - to her, a ‘magic world’ of security peace. Having left her husband and family behind in Aleppo, she settles in Cologne where she gives birth and then resumes her career as a professional opera singer. On the eve of her husband’s death she has a dream in which her concert performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe becomes mixed up with her traumatic journey from Syria and her life in Aleppo before the war.

At least, that’s what the programme tells me. I would have gleaned little of this from Mitchell’s staging, which began in the manner of a formal lieder recital, pianist and singer the only presences on the soft-lit stage. Then, men in suits entered, in profile. As the drama unfolded, they undressed and redressed the singer; pushed or carried on, and off again, chairs, tables, lamps, trees, garden furniture; made shadows dance and flicker on the singer’s face. A woman in a bridal dress danced by, as the men used their mobile ’phones to take photographs. Later, glass boxes containing dolls lying in contorted positions were wheeled in, and off again.

Julia Bullock.jpgJulia Bullock. Photo credit: Patrick Berger.

I had no clear idea who these personages were: at times Crimp’s text gave clues as to location or action, and one might identify a border guard or medic. But, who was the girl in the wedding dress? The singer’s daughter, or the singer herself? “Heine - Kraus - rhymer - what does it mean? Why are these gentlemen in my dream?” the singer asks. Quite. Mitchell’s repetition of gesture had none of the haunting melancholy of Schumann’s echoes. It was just dull. And, Crimp may have stayed true to the spirit of Heine’s imagery, with its ironic parodying of Romantic medievalism, but lines such as “‘Girls,’ she says ‘have flowers names - heart - rhymes with pain.’” or “Today I’m trading nightingales for dollar bills - each brown bird sold brings me closer to escape” are no match for Heine’s hothouse of roses and lilies, or his magic garden where the nightingales are singing and the moonlight is shimmering - “es singen die Nachtigallen,/ es flimmert der Mondenschein”.

Novalis wrote of literary narratives that, like nature itself, are without coherence and work instead by means of association, like dreams, and whose effect is like music. Dichterliebe embodies this aesthetic of fragmentation and survived Zauberland’s attempt to fill in the gaps.

Claire Seymour

Zauberland : Music - Robert Schumann and Bernard Foccroulle, Text - Martin Crimp and Heinrich Heine

Soprano - Julia Bullock, Piano - Cédric Tiberghien, Actors - Natasha Kafka, David Rawlins, Raphael Zari, Ben Clifford; Director - Katie Mitchell, Lighting designer - James Farncombe, Set and costume designer - Chloe Lamford.

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London; Tuesday 15th October 2019.

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