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Paul Capsis and George Shvetsov, Malthouse Paul Capsis and George Shvetsov, Malthouse
photo Jon Green
PUBLICITY FOR MATTHEW LUTTON’S MALTHOUSE PRODUCTION OF SCHUBERT’S DIE WINTERREISE PROMISES TO “CARRY US ACROSS THE AGES OF MAN TOWARDS SOMETHING THAT MAY NOT BE SALVATION, BUT MIGHT RESEMBLE SOMETHING LIKE GRACE.” MEANWHILE, IDA DUELUND HANSEN AND JETHRO WOODWARD’S RENDITION OF THE SONG CYCLE, TITLED BLOOD, IS PREFACED WITH AN IMAGE OF SCHUBERT PLAGUED BY SYPHILIS IN THE FINAL YEAR OF HIS LIFE, COMPOSING WHILE HALLUCINATING AND COUGHING UP BLOOD. THE IMAGES OF THE COMPOSER AS EITHER A WISTFUL INVALID OR AN ANGRY YOUNG MAN CAN OVERSHADOW THE ROMANTIC CONVENTION OF LITERARY IRONY THAT PERMEATES SCHUBERT’S LIEDER.

These two productions came closest to achieving bitterness and repose when they refrained from presenting “sad” or “angry” Schubert and—often by radically altering the original score—delicately portrayed conflicting effects.

In his memoir, Schubert’s friend Josef von Spaun recalls being “dumbfounded” by Die Winterreise’s “gloomy mood,” before suggesting that the intense emotion of the work contributed to the composer’s early death. Here we find von Spaun under the sway of an 18th century notion of the melancholic artist, an image that we cling to today.

The protagonist of Lutton’s Die Winterreise is one such character: a middle-aged man (George Shvetsov) pondering his turbulent life from the vantage point of a hot suburban living room. Sound designer Kelly Ryall diffuses Schubert’s songs—performed around the contemplative figure by Paul Capsis and Alister Spence—through a meditative fog of reverb. The songs are occasionally slowed down and their fragmented melodies repeated like the ruminative malcontent replaying his memories. Similarly, as part of Chamber Made Opera and The Malthouse’s Things on Sunday event, Blood, bassist and vocalist Duelund Hansen and sound designer Woodward mused over Die Winterreise’s text, harmonic turns and fragments of melody.

Another of Schubert’s friends, Johann Mayrhofer, remarked that “[h]e had been long and seriously ill, had gone through disheartening experiences, and life for him had shed its rosy colour; winter had come for him. The poet’s [Wilhelm Müller’s] irony, rooted in despair, appealed to him: he expressed it in cutting tones.” In Lutton’s production anger and bitterness were represented by unbearable, amplified shrieking.

The use of reverb, repetition and amplification in these productions presented unconvincing musical analogues of the emotions they were supposed to convey. Slow down, fragment and reverberate any music and it will become a ponderous sonic landscape. This device, much abused by sacred minimalists such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, presents a hollow image of the sublime that very quickly becomes tiring. Amplifying any sound enough will, far from triggering an existential crisis, leave the audience resenting the production for their ringing ears. In the context of Schubert’s music such one-dimensional presentation of affect mistakes the ends for the means. Schubert and his contemporaries understood that despair and the sublime were hard won through literary contradiction or irony.

As musicologists Susan Youens and Richard Taruskin have pointed out, Schubert’s lieder express suffering through a conflicting relationship between words and music. For example, dancing mockingly around the solemn protagonist of Lutton’s production, Capsis played up the sinister subtext of the sad–happy key change in “On the River.” In the song cycle, Schubert’s wanderer comes upon a frozen river and remembers its former joyful sound. At this point the piano accompaniment does not play an imitation of the remembered cheery bubble, but a menacing, loping bass line. When the wanderer writes his ex’s name on the river’s now frozen surface, a gesture that is hardly innocent and happy, the accompaniment modulates from E minor to E major. Recognising the similarity between the hard river and his broken heart, he asks whether there isn’t also, under its frozen surface, a raging torrent, whereupon the piano breaks into a frenetic clamour. As Capsis recognised, Die Winterreise does not smile, but smirks.

To Schubert’s favourite philosopher Friedrich Schlegel, irony as the incongruity of appearance and reality was a literary device engineered to produce a shock through which one could glimpse the irrational, the divine and the infinite. Duelund Hansen produces such an ironic effect on the word “Stürme” (storm) in “Einsamkeit” by changing the original score. Stürme, combining the roar of rain, a crack of lightning, and a peal of thunder, is usually howled over tumultuous piano chords. Duelund Hansen makes a decrescendo on this word, rendering the melodramatic gesture an impotent sob. This frustration of expectation reveals for a moment one’s distance from the raging storm, and in doing so, the magnitude of the storm itself.

I would argue that Schubert’s illness provides us with a situational irony that changes the way we hear his literary irony. It is one thing to hear an ironic passage and be confused for a second (read: glimpse the infinite) and quite another to feel oneself at odds with the world, such as during prolonged illness, when everyday activities seem hopelessly impossible. It is this situational irony, that of writing a clever song while using a chamber pot, that gives the true smirk to the first.

It is in expressing this situational irony that sincerity is required—and achieved—in both performances. Duelund Hansen begins her rendition with a mashup of two songs of estrangement, “Gute Nacht” and “Einsamkeit.” She delivers the lines “As a stranger I came, as a stranger I will leave” in a clear and direct tone, accompanying herself with chords played high on the double bass fingerboard. These chords, with their natural, unsaturated sound, provide a matter-of-fact plodding behind the remorseful statement. Lutton’s production concludes with the protagonist, after communicating his tragic past in a monologue, dancing to “Die Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) with wry resignation. By understating and bringing together the conflicting emotions of Die Winterreise the productions develop a more complex and even sublime emotional palette. At these moments, though deviating or adding to Schubert’s original score, they are closer than ever to its spirit.


The Malthouse: Die Winterreise, songs Franz Schubert, concept, direction Matthew Lutton, orignal text Tom Holloway, choreography Chrissie Parrott, set, costumes Adam Gardnir, performers George Shvetsov, Paul Capsis, George O’Hara, Alister Spence, sound design Kelly Ryall, lighting Paul Jackson, music supervisor Iain Grandage, additional arrangements, composition Alister Spence; Malthouse, July 20-31; Malthouse & Chamber Made Opera, Things on Sunday series: Blood, songs Franz Schubert, double bass, voice Ida Duelund Hansen, performer Caroline Lee, sound design Jethro Woodward, other compositions Alex Garsden, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, Jesse McVeity; Malthouse, Melbourne, July 31

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 42

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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