Theatre: The tracks of my tears

Mahler / Robert Lepage Lyric Theatre, London
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Mahler / Robert Lepage

Lyric Theatre, London

Mahler once suggested that to provide music for poetry that was already perfect was an act of profanation. When he set five of Friedrich Ruckert's 425 Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the death of children"), he felt that the texts left him room to work, yet there's a risk that music might render the poems' quiet grief rather lachrymose. And it's true that, in the orchestral version, the final song, "In diesen Wetter, in diesem Braus" (In this weather, in this bluster) does indeed bluster, as if the sadness needed tumult to make it musical.

Kindertotenlieder was never intended to be staged, but it's entirely legitimate for Robert Lepage to do so. No doubt financial strictures make it impossible to present the orchestral version, but in any case the drama he's created works better with piano alone, and not just because the pianist (Paul Suits) is part of the action as well as of the music. In the theatre, at least, piano accompaniment allows the emotions space rather than filling in every nuance on our - and the singer's - behalf.

Similarly, Lepage's staging provides a narrative framework that doesn't exploit the sentiments voiced in the songs: nobody wrings their hands, there are no paroxysms of grief. Instead we get a story simply told in three clearly defined time-frames that lay the ground for a performance of the songs: a pregnant singer (Rebecca Blankenship) rehearses Kindertotenlieder with her accompanist (Suits); some ten years later, she and her child (at Monday's performance, Annabel Dickson) pack away their belongings in preparation to set sail, like Mahler before them, for America. Meanwhile Mahler himself (Suits again) wanders in and out as if looking for something he has lost.

Lepage manages the layering well, particularly the transformation of the domestic interior into a ship, a dreamspace where narrative is suspended. Yet, while understatement reaps dividends, the staging shuns emotive gesture so conscientiously that it renders the action humdrum, while the music sometimes seems supernumerary. Perhaps that's why the performers feel compelled towards the portentous, Suits' choppy piano and Blankenship's mannered phrasing, gravid with vibrato, stifling the musical breath. (The songs are sung in German, with Blake Morrison's versions of the poems projected as surtitles, but, although Morrison's text works well on the page, it's not designed well for surtitling

Yet striking images remain in the memory: Mahler emerging into the present to cover the singer with a black veil before going to the piano and picking out the accompaniment she must follow. Or the child, helping her mother to accept the need to escape the past, telling her, "I think it's time to go." At this point, the dramatic reticence pays off by making room for a single bold gesture: the child lies down at the front of the stage, mother covers her with a white sheet, as if she's part of the furniture to be left behind, and sings the final song. At such moments music and staging fuse. Too often they travel on separate tracks.

To 30 May. Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (0181-741 2311)