Last night we saw Winterreise/The Sorrows of Young Werther, given by the Long Beach Opera at the Edison Theater in Long Beach. It was a staged version of the Schubert song cycle, based on a set of poems by Wilhelm Mueller, interwoven with readings from Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The idea of mixing the two works was bold, and for the most part, it worked very well.
The cycle was sung by Erik Nelson Werner, an American who spent many of his formative years in Germany, and received much of his musical training there. He was ideal for the part. His German accent was flawless as he sang the songs, and his English was also perfect as he spoke the Goethe passages in between the songs. Again, this was a staged performance — and Werner is a strong actor. He has an undeniable presence, and in the intimate setting of the Edison Theater, the audience members were gripped by his strong acting style.
As the cycle begins, Werther sits in a chair and sings Gute Nacht as the Lotte character sits in his lap, her head on his shoulder. It is a jarring image: the protagonist of Winterreise should not have his beloved in his lap. But the audience soon learns that she is dying; by the end of the song she lies motionless on a bed, with a dark red bloodstain on her dress — matched by a similar stain on Werther’s shirt. Evidently, he has just killed her.
The first few songs take place in this setting, with the dead Lotte on the bed, and the creepy murderer Werther singing over her corpse. This was initially quite jarring, but I went with it — and quickly reached a strange enjoyment of the conceit as illustrative of the character’s delirium. And it later appears that the murder was all a dream, anyway.
It was interesting to hear how they changed up the music. A recorded version of Fruehlingstraum played while Werther slept (suggestion for the producer: record only the A major dream sections of the song, and have him jolt awake and sing the other sections live). And Einsamkeit was sung without piano accompaniment, an interesting experiment that emphasized the “loneliness” of the song.
Einsamkeit is the last of the first set of songs, and is the song Schubert originally intended as the end of the cycle. In the Long Beach opera performance, it is cleverly followed by a lovely rendition of the slow movement from Schubert’s B-flat major sonata. The inclusion of this quiet piano piece as a transition was an inspired touch.
This is interrupted by Werther shrieking his way out of a dream. When this happened, it felt a bit like a cheap stunt from a low-budget John Carpenter horror movie — a jolt to the audience to make sure we were awake. But in retrospect, it is a necessary transition into the delirium of Die Post and into the descending spiral of madness of the final songs.
At such times, Werther reminded me of the protagonist of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I half-expected Jennifer Hart Jackson — a delicate creature who often performs as Tinkerbell at Disneyland — to get up from the bed, start sucking on Mr. Werner’s fingers, and ask him: “Are all these your guitars?”
The Wall analogy seemed particularly apt when Werner started smashing things. (This was also reminiscent at times of Pete Townshend of the Who.) Nearly everything on the set that Werther could break, he broke. As Werner eyed the wine bottle sitting on the table in front of me during one of the final songs, I thought: Uh-oh. I think that’s the last remaining glass item that you’ve not yet shattered. Just leave it there, mmmmkay? (He did.) And when Werner’s Werther character was holding a pistol that he was considering using to end his life, he had it pointed right at me, sitting in the first row. I couldn’t help but think: hey! Watch where you’re pointing that thing, buddy!
But these were at most minor distractions from a performance that really, really worked — due in large part to Werner’s charismatic performance, as well as his excellent voice.
Anyone who goes should understand that the performance does not really convey the mood of Winterreise as it is generally conceived: a forlorn man wandering though a bleak snowy landscape of nature. But the Long Beach Opera version is definitely a convincing portrait of madness.
It worked well as what it was. I am not a snob about music being performed differently. I love my Chandos recordings of opera in English, and hearing Beethoven symphonies played on the piano in Liszt transcriptions. Hearing a piece of music performed in a radically different way is, for me, a nice way to take a new look at it.
I wouldn’t want every Winterreise to be performed this way, but I enjoyed this one for a night.
UPDATE 5-23-05: The L.A. Times review is here. It’s not terribly detailed, but I’m pleased to see that it’s positive.
UPDATE 5-27-05: Here is a favorable review from the Long Beach Press-Telegram.