Inviting a friend to a private recital of new work, Franz Schubert strikes an ominous tone: "Come over . . . and I will sing you a cycle of horrifying songs. They have cost me more effort than any other of my songs." That’s how the composer spoke of Winterreise (Winter Journey), his setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller for piano and tenor. The wistful, morose texts depict a heartbroken man wandering across a wintry landscape, musing poetically on weathervanes and linden trees. As his tears drop in the snow, he dreams and trudges along, finally coming face to face with a homeless man playing a hurdy-gurdy.
Was Schubert's warning apt? Are his songs horrifying? That question shall be fully explored when The Dark Mirror: Zender's Winterreise is performed at the Rose Theater on August 12 and 13 as part of the 2017 Mostly Mozart Festival. Listeners who know Winterreise in its 1828 form may indeed feel shivers of the uncanny during this bracing, iconoclastic version.
Sung by the great English tenor Ian Bostridge and directed by Netia Jones, The Dark Mirror is a multimedia staging of Hans Zender's 1993 "composed interpretation" of Schubert's original. While retaining the order and vocal lines of the 24 songs, Zender orchestrated it entirely, using techniques (tempo distortions, new intros and postludes, fragmenting parts, word painting) to bring greater theatricality and emotional intensity to the classic lieder.
For example, Schubert's version of the first song, "Gute Nacht" ("Good Night"), begins as a moody, rolling figure on the piano, like a perpetual-motion machine, the protagonist perhaps gloomily obsessing over the romantic breakup that prompted his wandering. In Zender's version, the hushed and creepy opening sounds are a brush on a drum, like the shuffling of feet through a thick crust of snow. And that's just the start; Zender isn't afraid to go dark or harsh. The remarkably expressive score will be performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble under conductor Baldur Brönnimann, making his Mostly Mozart debut.
Schubert purists, fear not: Bostridge has lived with Winterreise most of his life, having performed it around the world for more than 30 years. He even wrote a book about it, the marvelously sympathetic and delving Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (2015). If anyone would be protective of it, it would be him. But, as he says: "My line with performance pieces is that one should experiment. Any act of willful sacrilege is thankfully temporary—we're not slashing the Mona Lisa—and it is crucial to keep these works alive, to recapture the challenge they presented in 1828."
Similarly, director Jones sees no conflict between Zender and Schubert. "It's not in competition, not in any way improving or replacing—it's just a totally other work of art," she explains. "Zender weaves in the entire history of music, really, from the time of Schubert to the moment that [Zender] was writing the orchestration. Endless imagery, endless imagination and atmosphere is conjured in this piece."
Bostridge credits Jones, who is also a video designer, with teasing out that dense bundle of imagery over the course of the 90-minute performance. "Netia has tried to mirror Zender," Bostridge notes, "in drawing out some of the historical layers which have accreted around the piece, all the way from the First Vienna School via high Romanticism and the Second Vienna School to Weimar. She physicalizes a lot of the imagery in the poetry as well as reflects it in video projections."
Ian Bostridge has lived with Winterreise most of his life.
Those projections—a montage of about 400 pieces of visual material painstakingly spliced together— make the visual "score" of The Dark Mirror as significant as the musical one. Jones designed a black-and-white movie that unfolds behind Bostridge, who spends most of the performance in white tie and tails occupying a long, sloped platform. A rather Beckettian tree loiters forlornly to the left of the stage. Bostridge begins the night seated in a chair with a light trained on him, and he ends it similarly. In between there are images of dogs howling, shadow play against the screen, enormous gears, and somber, snow-covered vistas.
"I'm not afraid of being literal, sometimes," Jones admits. "It would be foolish to avoid the literal landscape, which is so clearly portrayed in these beautiful poems. The idea of winter is something that is so evocative." The director and her film crew had to venture to the far north of Finland to find the perfect location, "where you suddenly become aware of what winters used to be like. I think in the States, you still have winters like this. It's very, very monochrome imagery."
Also striking is big-screen footage of Bostridge singing Winterreise—two decades ago. Jones uses clips from a 1997 film directed by David Alden and designed by Ian McNeil. Jones characterizes the juxtaposition of filmed Bostridge and live Bostridge as "cabaret" in spirit—like Weimar cabaret's tendency to mock for ironic, distancing effect. "Ian plays a protagonist who is commenting on a protagonist who is commenting on himself," she notes. "I could only have done it with Ian: the idea that somebody aged 52 or so can sing simultaneously with his 25-year-old self. I found that very poignant and somewhat a key to the piece itself."
Both Jones and Bostridge scrupulously avoid attaching fixed meaning to the production. Jones notes that the protagonist "starts, possibly, a traveler. He's exiting. There's a direction. But as the cycle continues, he's definitely wandering. This is a goal that will not be reached. The journey becomes internalized. And the landscape becomes internalized. These nuances, tiny alternations in translation or interpretation, are laden with meaning."
"I'm very resistant to the idea of Winterreise or Dark Mirror having a message, certainly one that can be summed up with a sentence," Bostridge states. "The essential character of Schubert's piece and of Zender's is openness and even ambiguity, onto which we can project and from which we can extract multiple meanings. Isn't that the essence of great art, that it remains unfathomable?"
For tickets and information, visit MostlyMozart.org.
David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in New York City. He was Time Out New York's longest-serving theater editor and critic (2003–17).