Ours is a tri-musical age; an era in which performers will try anything once. Recoil if you must at Israel in Egypt accompanied by a slide-show of the Gaza Strip or Mark Morris simulating masturbation to Dido and Aeneas but rules are there to be broken and it doesn't stop with opera or oratorio. So, after Peter Sellars's gestural, gymnastic, discursive staging of Bach's Cantatas BWV 82 and 199 for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Trisha Brown's choreography of Schubert's Winterreise for that most balletic of baritones, Simon Keenlyside, seems a natural progression within the current trend of re-presenting core repertoire. But is it?
Generally speaking, I'm happy to be challenged or even offended by an artist's interpretation of a work if the end result is illumination. Thus, having had my preconceptions of "authenticity" quite overturned by Sellars's ecstatic, metaphysical Bach, I determined to keep an open mind during the first British performance of Winterreise at the Barbican. Sadly it proved impossible. That Keenlyside, whose singing was as assured as ever (if, along with pianist Pedja Muzijec, somewhat compromised in intensity and expression by the size of the venue and by having to keep time with the dancers), has experimented in this fashion is to be applauded. But I fear he may have chosen either the wrong collaborator or, dare I say it, the wrong work. Striking as some of Brown's images are - in particular the human cradle in Rast and the deformed silhouette of Der Leiermann, a figure straight from the eugenic fantasies of Nazi propaganda - and faultless as Keenlyside and his fellow performers' execution of them appeared to this dance-illiterate member of the audience, her over-literal approach to the text closes more doors than it opens. Scarcely an image of Wilhelm Müller's poetry goes by without physical comment; Der Lindenbaum - which sees Keenlyside and the dancers assume the shape of, gosh, a tree - being only the most obvious example. Alas, this trend towards the blunt is not restricted to movement; the colour green - first "Die liebe..." then "Die böse Farbe" of Schubert and Müller's effective prequel, Die Schöne Müllerin - again figures prominently in Winterreise and is, with thudding predictability, picked up in both Jennifer Tipton's lighting and Elizabeth Cannon's costume designs. More restricting still is Brown's depiction of the anonymous beloved in the first song, Gute Nacht; ever circling, never touching, but here apparently real.
With another singer, Brown's flat corroboration of the narrator's history through physical evidence would be less surprising. (Time was when Schubert's songs were uniformly taken at surface value.) But, as those who have seen Keenlyside perform Winterreise in recital - a devastating example of "less is more" - will understand, the veracity of this anti-hero's romantic experiences is far from proven. Furthermore, as there is little recollection of her words in his telling of the narrative, it may even be that the relationship itself is pure fantasy; a crazed exaggeration of what might well have been nothing more than casual courtesy. You might argue that considering such a possibility is anachronistic or too post-Freudian to be applied to a work written in 1827. Yet increasingly it seems to me that this is the same voice as the narrator of Die Schöne Müllerin - case studies recorded only a matter of weeks apart, as it were - and that the anguished abstraction and isolation of Winterreise is a natural, if not inevitable, extension of the increasingly intemperate reactions of the Miller's apprentice in the first song cycle; just as the incipient madness of its creators was the natural extension of the tertiary syphilis that killed them both, so very young. So here we have the fantasist, the stalker; a figure not dissimilar to Pat Barker's Billy Prior (Regeneration), perhaps. Why choreograph his thoughts? To return to the Bach for a moment, the physical demands placed upon Hunt Lieberson - easily equal to those on Keenlyside - were of secondary interest to her response to the music and text and synchronous to, rather than directly illustrative of, both. How odd then, and how disappointing, that a performer who has done more than anyone else to demonstrate that the landscape of Winterreise is a mental landscape should turn psychosis into nothing more than a broken heart.
But hey, at least it was comfortable! That wide-bottomed, air-conditioned, new-car feel of the Barbican is a welcome relief after the Proms, I can tell you. Never more so, in fact, than at the precious moment when bad audience behaviour finally died its seasonal death, somewhere between the second and third movements of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony. (Yes, the Hovis advert. And ravishingly played it was too.) But I suppose some hang-over from eight weeks of endemic mid-movement applause is inevitable even from patrons of the London Symphony Orchestra. I suppose too that if you're going to try it at a venue other than the Albert Hall - or at any of the opera houses, as is ceaselessly pointed out, though it's just as irritating in Puccini - you may as well go out to the bang of Lalo's Symphonie espagnole; a work that was, in this performance, about as shy and retiring as Cristina Aguilera. Or, indeed, last Sunday's soloist, Maxim Vengerov.
Oh, that Vengerov sound! So butch and yet so camp! Oh, the vulgarity! Oh, the precision! Oh, the schmaltz! Oh, the spiccato! Oh, the nuance! Oh, the harmonics! Tempting as it was to presume that Vengerov's new highlights - un peu Pat Cash, if you ask me - were responsible for the smirk on Sir Colin Davis's face, I think the real reason for his jollity was the absurdity of watching a natural virtuoso and one of the world's greatest orchestras lavish their extraordinary talents on this daft lollipop of a piece. Enough already. The season starts now and it's time for some serious music making. And - ssh! - I'd rather hear Renaud Capuçon play the Lalo any day.Reuse content