A sour, bronchitic rasp opens and closes baritone Thomas Guthrie's staging of Winterreise.
As the first notes of Schubert's song cycle sound, woodcut clouds drift across a full moon on a screen above. Huddled under burlap, barely visible in the darkness, a small wooden figure looks up and begins to sing, hot with fever in a frozen landscape.
Movement is necessarily restricted in Guthrie's liminal production. Performed in the tiny Tristan Bates Theatre with a period guitar and an 1828 grand piano, the journey unfolds in flashback. As puppet and singer-animator become one, it barely matters whether we are in the coal-burner's hut ("Rast") or the cemetery ("Das Wirtshaus"). The enforced intimacy is transformative, turning a clean, collegiate baritone into something wild and dark. Consonants cut like blades or whisper like leaves, the great moan of "Wasserflut" sears. Meanwhile, the careless prettiness of Sam Cave's guitar is contrasted with the oyster-shell timbres of David Owen Norris's piano. From the Beethovenian glower of "Erstarrung" to the gentle ripple of "Der Lindenbaum", the bone-shaking clatter of "Die Post", the nostalgic whistle of "Frühlingstraum", the silvered skies of "Die Krähe" and the faint drone of "Der Leiermann" this was audaciously expressive, chilling and thrilling.
For a happier ending to a winter journey, let's turn to Sir Mark Elder's performance of L'Enfance du Christ with the Britten Sinfonia. Powerfully theatrical in its first part, gilded and candied in its second, and dewily fragranced with pseudo-exotica in its third, this sacred triptych is a guilty pleasure. Time and place blur deliciously. Though Egypt sounds like Provence, Berlioz is extravagantly generous with colour and character, painting a post-partum Mary (Sarah Connolly) of impeccable tenderness and a Joseph (Roderick Williams) of indefatigable rectitude.
King Herod (Neal Davies) is assigned a lavish dream-sequence, while the kindly Ishmaelite (Davies again) who eventually shelters the Holy Family has time to exchange small-talk about carpentry and baby-names ("Jésus! Quel nom charmant!") before summoning a trio of flutes and harp. The Brighton Dome has a capricious acoustic but the singing was magnificent, the orchestral textures exquisitely balanced, the choral singing at its most refined when supporting Allan Clayton's elegant, tireless Narrator in the Epilogue. A magical conclusion to the year.