Review by Rodney Punt
The most talked about work of this month's 66th annual Ojai Music Festival was Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, a remix of early Romantic song-cycles, using excerpts from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise and songs with Rellstab and Goethe texts, and excerpts (and opening line as title) from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe . De Leeuw’s challenge, described by program annotator Chris Haley, was “How to capture the flood of sentiment and Weltschmerz that swept over Europe in the early decades of the 19th century, this Byronic age of the solitary wanderer? That age is gone - its feel and texture, its fashions, mores and habits of speech.”
The Dutch composer’s approach was to reimagine and orchestrate the songs in the style of early 20th century cabaret, capturing the more worldly, even cynical outlook of an era that experienced the collapse of civil order and social cohesion under the doomed Weimar Republic. De Leeuw patterned his cycle after Arnold Schoenberg’s theatrical melodrama, Pierrot Lunaire, using the same chamber music ensemble and 21-song format. He divided his songs into three sets of seven, with each a kind of theatrical act, focusing on love, rejection, and resignation. His actor-singer emotes in Schoenbergian Sprechstimme -- a half-spoken, half-sung hybrid that emphasizes expressivity over tonal purity. The style recalls the gravel-throated theatricality of a singer like Lotte Lenya.
In an earlier conversation with Ojai Talks director Ara Guzelimian, De Leeuw justified his new cycle as liberating the truth of the texts from the prettiness of their accustomed singing and recital etiquette -- with a singer’s folded hands and prim manner -- and infusing them with more rawness and danger. It was to be a migration closer to the popular songs people might hear on the streets rather than in the concert hall. An intriguing premise. Inappropriate, however, to air as a foil a video of just-deceased Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the singer who did more than any other in our time to resurrect, shake off the fustiness and widen interest in the lied. Given the amount of daringly staged original versions of Winterreise (two recent gritty ones at the Long Beach Opera) and its cutting edge recital performances by artists of the stature of Ian Bostridge at UCLA two years ago, the assertion that today's lieder recitals have Margaret Dumont-like singers posed in grand hauteur seemed something of a straw dog.
Expectations of a lieder recital shake-up at the later performance were high, but the resulting work, while intriguing and certainly worth the attempt, was a bit of a letdown. Hearing these already familiar songs in other than lieder contexts is hardly novel; one encounters Schubert’s Ständchen in bowdlerized versions from shopping malls to office elevators. The original version of Der Erlkönig, properly sung and played, is scarier than anything done to it in De Leeuw’s set. Also, using so many of the most familiar Schubert and Schumann tunes, charged as they are with vivid prior associations, infuses De Leeuw's piece with the scent of pastiche.
To be sure, De Leeuw, who conducted the performance of his work, is a master orchestrator. He found just the right instrumental mix to capture and color the psychology of each song, the tunes of which resided not so much with the singer as in the chamber ensemble. Motivic variations, when the composer occasionally let his fancy fly, could achieve telling development. And the members of the NCO, particularly its winds, did a bang-up job with what they were given. The spinning wheel in Gretchen am Spinnrade appeared to come off its psychological axle in disturbing ways. In Ich grolle nicht, perhaps the most haunting of the treatments, the pretense of the non-complaining protagonist was soon exposed as totally unhinged anger.
With many of the songs orchestrated but not much developed, the heavy lifting of interpretation fell to the singer-speaker. In this regard the performance did not fully achieve its potential. The originally scheduled Barbara Sukowa -- the unique theater personality who helped create and who premiered the work -- was forced to cancel just two weeks before its performance due to a family illness. Substituting for her was veteran soprano Lucy Shelton, who three years ago gave a whopper of a Pierrot lunaire in a staged version at Ojai with the group ‘eighth blackbird’.
On this occasion, game as she was to take on the role, Shelton's voice was not at its freshest and her lovesick protagonist did not fully inhabit the drama; one detected a performer switching gears between the singing, shrieking, whispering and howling. Her choreographed meandering up and down the stage was gestural and unconvincing. It is possible there was not enough rehearsal time to do more, or that the De Leeuw-Sukowa piece is simply one of those works so tailor-made for a particular artist, it cannot easily be translated to another personality.
From the perspective of the early 21st century, the notion that updating songs from the early 19th to the early 20th century is an act of “modernizing” seems quaint. Pierrot lunaire, this work’s model, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but it is still as fresh as a newly minted coin, because, like the songs of Schubert and Schumann, it is an original work of genius and can never be replicated. The exaggerated atmospherics of De Leeuw's Weimar Republic era are reimagined and recreated. In many ways they are more removed from us today than are the direct emotions of the original Schubert and Schumann songs. The wry observation applies that there is nothing more dated than yesterday's vogue.
With Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, authentic historic songs of Romanticism’s early flowering have become ersatz historicist songs from Expressionism’s late decay.
Photos by Timothy Norris are used by permission of the Ojai Music Festival: Top, soprano Lucy Shelton. Below, composer-conductor Reinbert De Leeuw.
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Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@ArtsPacifica.net