As night follows day

Live review: Winterreise; Paris Opera Comique, Lyric Hammersmith

In EM Forster's classic paradigm of plot, the king died and then the queen died of grief. But what are we to make of Schubert's song-cycle Winterreise, where boy loses girl and then dies to the world, wandering in a frozen wasteland while suffering the exquisite miseries of a broken heart?

In its romantic taste for alienation and pathetic fallacy the piece exerts a broad fascination well beyond the sphere of music. As a Forster storyline, however, it feels rather less secure, despite its semblance of cause and effect and sturdy point of view that seem essentially novelistic. Instead, each song makes a flawless statement about the boy's condition. There is no antagonist save the poet's hostility to his own image of love, a form of self-loathing. And the complete expression of that lies where it began: in the music.

Despite advance rumours of a frozen auditorium at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith as part of their act, the Paris Opera-Comique's staged version of the piece, which opened on Wednesday, stuck firmly to the text. Indeed, pianist Andrew Ball and tenor Martyn Hill sang and played centre-stage very much as if nothing were happening around them: a recital performance, in effect, and one to remember fondly.

In that sense, Christian Boltanski's installation behind them respected the hegemony of the music, though in its presence the audience perception of the singer was inevitably changed. Night and day were the essential divisions - or seemed to be, for this was a production where absurdity, echoing the singer's despair, had its place in whichever way you chose to interpret the often obscure gestures. By night, some 60 light bulbs on wires descended like stars let into the firmament of heaven. By day, railway footage of a journey between Vienna and Prague, shot in grainy monochrome, played on the pleated screen behind the soloists - and, no doubt, on our many sinister thoughts about such 20th-century journeys. Hypnotised, you kept on looking as if from a real train window, endlessly. The occasional reward was a glimpse of the beloved imposed as a shadowy image on the parade of shunting yards, birch woods and grimy towns.

As a mirror of Schubert's deepening, plotless gloom, dancer Brygida Ochaim and deadpan twin-actors Leslaw and Waclaw Janicki, late of the famous Kantor troupe, span a web of futile actions involving trap doors, a noose, and other symbols of departure. For anyone whose inner picture of the work has been honed by repeated hearings, this new realisation made for disturbing viewing, and no bad thing, if the function of art is to disturb. Quoted in the programme, Boltanski himself seemed unaware that a cycle of songs, if perfect, is neither literature nor theatre but a unity of its own: again, no harm if the result never turns the original into accompaniment. Most of Winterreise avoided this cardinal sin; though when Martyn Hill was briefly performing without stage background, in "Muth", one could only lament the loss of poetic richness that allows Schubert's own voice to speak through the music when Winterreise is heard alone.

n To Sat, 7.30pm Lyric Hammersmith, London W6. Booking: 0181-741 2311

NICHOLAS WILLIAMS

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