Long day's journey into night

Typical Eurotrash theatre or serendipitous intuition? Malcolm Hayes finds a surreal staging of Schubert's wintry song-cycle that is truer to the bleak spirit of 1827 than to the cosy warmth of today's recital hall
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Early in 1827 in Vienna a syphilitic, workaholic composer, already with over 600 songs to his name at the age of 29, came across a cycle of poems entitled Winterreise (A winter's journey) in a local periodical. Written by Wilhelm Muller, the dozen-or-so lyrics charted the stages of emotional disintegration of an unnamed anti-hero in the aftermath of a bitter love-affair.

The metaphor of his near- terminal state of mind is a solitary, self-absorbed journey on foot along the roads of a rural winter landscape. This, in the purest tradition of maniacal Romantic despair, is snowbound, sunless and virtually deserted. The traveller wilfully shuns any form of human contact, and the few signs of life around him - barking dogs rattling their chains, a single crow circling overhead - serve to emphasise even further his sense of numbed isolation.

Schubert sat down at his piano and proceeded to compose his settings in his usual way, singing the text to himself in his reportedly quite agreeable tenor voice as he worked out the accompaniment at the keyboard. Then he put them aside to plunge into work on other projects. He did not yet know that he had read Muller's poems in a bowdlerised printing that included only the first dozen of a complete cycle of 24. When he eventually showed his new songs to some friends, their response was threefold: amazement at the music's transcendent inspiration, bewilderment at its unnerving bleakness, and puzzlement as to why Schubert had set only half of Muller's cycle of poems. "Oh, are there more?" he replied, and having located them, quickly finished off the song-cycle which has ever since been regarded as a seamless and peerless masterwork of the genre.

Enter, 167 years later, the Paris-based duo of artist Christian Boltanski and film-maker Hans-Peter Cloos. Their staging of Winterreise was unveiled early in 1994 at the city's Opera-Comique, to the accompaniment of much startled debate as to the suitability of staging a song-cycle at all, let alone with the polemical abstraction of this example.

Description risks making the Cloos-Boltanski Winterreise sound like an exercise in near-Pythonesque idiocy - unreasonably, because their staging deals in the conjuring of dreamlandscapes, and this kind of visual currency isn't intended to conform to the supposed "sense" of day-to-day existence. Centre stage is the piano, with the singer standing mostly in his traditional position just in front; occasionally he steps further forward or moves round to stand by the accompanist at the keyboard. Both wear ordinary grey suits (rather than the full-rigged evening dress which is the inappropriate and ridiculous norm in concert-hall recitals). The only other dramatis personae are a female dancer, and two actors (Leslaw and Waclaw Janicki, identical twin brothers and former members of the Tadeusz Kantor company) who manipulate the staging's sparse assortment of trappings: a small portable booth, piles of suitcases, heaps of old clothes.

Intersecting with this are lighting designs by Jean Kalman - bold and subtle by turns, and consistently anti-realistic - and film sequences shot in black-and-white by Cloos through the window during a train journey he and Boltanski made between Vienna and Prague, and here silently back- projected on to a screen. There are no crows, barking dogs, or other crassly literal trappings. The implication seems to be that this is anyone's and everyone's winter journey, and, by extension, a Winterreise of the modern age itself.

All this is, of course, easy meat for anyone who wants to denounce Cloos's and Boltanski's creation as a vintage product of the school of contemporary Eurotrash theatre production: self-indulgent, wilfully perverse, heretically disrespectful of Schubert's great work, etc. But the premise of staging this song-cycle, at least, is not as arbitrary as it sounds. Winterreise's intersection of nightmare imagery and haunting musical beauty projects far beyond the companionable world of song recitals as Schubert knew it - often in a private home, with enchanted friends and admirers clustered happily round the piano as Schubert himself accompanied.

Winterreise, on the contrary, anticipates the world of much 20th-century art by an entire century, and its fusion of early-Romantic musical syntax and a psychological landscape of exemplary modernist bleakness duly precipitated a number of radical reinterpretations well before Cloos's and Boltanski's staging came along. For instance, the great German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is regarded as perhaps the work's definitive interpreter of the post-war age: yet his obsessively dark and probing approach was itself sharply at odds with the lyrical tradition of Lieder-singing from which it sprang.

The mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender recently subverted that tradition further by performing and recording a work whose text clearly presupposes a male voice, although indeterminate and implication-free gender is an accepted device of Lieder performance. (That said, is a lesbian staging of Winterreise the inevitable next step?) More contentiously still, the German composer-conductor Hans Zender has recently "recomposed" Winterreise, extending and developing Schubert's original with sharply modernist interpolations of his own, and with surreal and extreme results.

In one respect the Cloos-Boltanski staging is, in fact, truer to Schubert's creation than many of these forerunners. Boltanski insisted that the songs should be sung by a tenor, since he wanted a sound that would be "plus fragile" than the now more usual, Fischer-Dieskau inspired baritone. Martyn Hill, whose fine and far from literally fragile tenor has graced this staging from the start, insisted for his part that the songs should all be sung at Schubert's original pitch (by no means the norm in concert- hall recitals). Indeed, his influence on proceedings went further.

"Early on in the rehearsals there were moments when the actors were throwing things about on the stage," Hill tells me. "I put it to Christian that this wasn't going to work. He said, `Ah, Martyn, you do not understand theatre, there is always noise.' So I said, `Let's do it one night without the staging, and the next night without the music, and see what happens.' That helped. And I think that, after that, the more the staging evolved, the more the text began to get to him. We were doing a television interview together, and he suddenly came out with `Je deteste Schubert!' "

Hill insists, however, that some of the wilder ideas floated at the time have yet to become reality, despite the persistent rumour that punters turning up at Hammersmith's Lyric Theatre this week will find the heating turned off and an overcoat on every seat. "The logistics would be a nightmare. And anyway, an unheated hall for a public performance is probably illegal."

So what about extending the Cloos-Boltanski treatment to other classic song-cycles with an implied narrative or dramatic agenda: Schubert's Die schone Mullerin, for example, or Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben? Hill likes the idea.

"I don't think doing things like this necessarily puts people off. Gavin Henderson, who used to run the Brighton Festival, once told me that if you put on an event in a gravel pit in the rain, people will queue to see it. It's getting them to come to straight concerts that is the problem."

n `Winterreise' is at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London W6, 7.30pm today to Saturday. Booking: 0181-741 2311