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Lieder in the flesh

09/16/2003 -  and 18 September 2003
Franz Schubert: Winterreise
Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Pedja Muzijevic (piano), Brandi L. Norton (dancer), Seth Parker (dancer), Lionel Popkin (dancer)

Trisha Brown (director)

Trisha Brown's 1998 movement-based staging of Monteverdi's Orfeo was not to everyone's taste, its austere, sculptural beauty far from the humanity and joie de vivre of Mark Morris' wonderful music theatre productions, which probably form the leading edge of the avant garde for London opera audiences. But Orfeo was supremely memorable for the flying embodiment of music, which Brown has developed into a separate work, and for the physical and musical grace of the baritone Simon Keenlyside in the title role. Keenlyside subsequently asked to work with Brown on a project closer to his native turf than hers, Schubert's Winterreise, and the result was premiered at the Lincoln Center late last year before coming to the Barbican on an incongruously balmy early autumn day.

In contrast to the Gesamtkunstwerk of Orfeo, where space and movement are part of the theatrical context, Winterreise is usually experienced, perhaps as intended, as a voice that expresses romantic inner experience with support from a comparatively sparse piano accompaniment that evokes the other noises in the head. The line of the journey is inside the voice, which to all purposes invents the landscape through which it proceeds. The whole thing is intimate and delicate, at risk of being crushed by any physical enactment or illustration. The Barbican Hall also seems far too big for such an ethereal work.

Brown's measured, abstract choreography for three dancers and the singer turns out scarcely to extend beyond the boundaries of the singer's performance. The absent beloved is represented in "Gute Nacht" by a naked dancer in a skeletal hooped dress who circles around the singer like the moon, never touching, except through the meeting of shadow fingers on the backdrop. She then disappears, and the external world seems to depart with her: the three dancers in neutral dress form an extension of the singer's body, often in a Siva-like row that narrowly skirts the risk of suggesting the green-eyed yellow idol to the east of Kathmandu, or in a solid structure that represents a bed in "Rast" and a grave in "Das Wirthaus". There are times when the singer disappears, becomes purely a voice, and the dancers and Jennifer Tipton's always evocative lighting make up the whole of his delusional world. This is strikingly the case in the last two songs, where a bright but insubstantial Nebensonne fades into a chilly twilight in which the Leiermann twists in complete alienation.

The performance is always about the singer, though. The dancers may do such lifting as there is, but Keenlyside is still the protagonist. Their role seems much of the time to be simply to enable his performance without the use of props or scenery, to keep the whole thing as human and inward as possible. Most audiences today would be delighted to hear Keenlyside's, and Pedja Muzijevic's, performance without the dance, although Keenlyside at least delivered singing that was far from the polished, watercolour tinted ideal of the old-fashioned recital. With the movement, Keenlyside embodied, if that is possible, the disembodiment of the anonymous narrator of the cycle. His voice often takes on rougher colours than a recitalist would, but they are part of a richer palette of pain and hope that exist outside the physical world and take on a life of their own in his body.

In spite of the remarkable impact of this Winterreise, it is difficult to imagine that Brown and Keenlyside have started a new genre of music theatre or performance, though. Stagings of Winterreise are not quite unheard of, and wise directors will use Keenlyside's gift for movement in future productions. But this is probably a one-off success that might well not have been. The thought of imitations with less appropriate singers is toe curling.

HE Elsom



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