Chicago Opera Vanguard
Fasseas White Box Theater
at Menomenee Club Drucker Center
1535 N Dayton (near North/Clybourn)
Sturm und Drang for the Artist’s Soul
It’s not too late to take a Winter’s journey with Chicago Opera Vanguard (COV). Their production “Winterreise” is a staging of Schubert’s 1827 song cycle replete with lights, video, dancers/actors, and a modest set (and subtitles for non-German-speaking audiences).
This is not the first song cycle staged by COV. In there first season, “Season 0”, they staged “Orpheus and Euridice” by Ricky Ian Gordon at the AV-aerie, giving them ample room to create moments of subtle beauty. “Winterreise” poses more of a challenge as the white box theater is much smaller, but the result is a heightened sense of intimacy more so than constriction. With nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, the 20-some-odd people in the near-sell-out audience and the 5 performers fall into a tangled symbiotic web, calling attention to the audience’s role in a successful performance (without making anyone feel uncomfortable).
Ultimately, however, the performance hinges on Brad Jungwirth, the lone singer in the show. Jugwirth’s meaty baritone voice fills the space whether he is standing in front, behind, or off in some corner. Freed from the crook of the piano, he is able to take his own journey, both physical and emotional, that explores the bottom of the emotional experience, maintaining hints of dark undertones in even the most benign of songs. With eyes darkened by makeup and a costume that seems almost historically accurate, he brings broken-hearted wanderer to life.
COV’s productions have quite a reputation to live up to: a tasteful mix of imagination and common sense conspiring to tell a story. This production does not disappoint, although the balance is not as perfect as in previous productions. The part of “pianist” is played by Myron Silberstein, who looks the part as well as he plays it, closely resembling Schubert himself. He and Jungwirth carry the show, musically and theatrically, with the set providing a flexible framework to support their wanderings. (Silberstein, himself, wanders from one mediocre upright to another slightly more mediocre.) Supporting Jungwirth are three actor/dancers who sometimes seem like glorified stagehands (in fancy dress) and at others seem slightly superfluous. But only the dancing did I find actually detracting from the Gestalt; the choreography was too much, too extroverted, and thus out of character with both the cycle and the rest of the production. (Also, dancers get accustomed to playing to big theaters, overplaying emotions, and so then overproject in intimate settings.)
And while some innovations were imaginative, some were experimental—that’s new-music “code” for unsuccessful. COV often uses video—and often with limited success. In this case, the video, projected above, helped the audience follow the journey through subtitles and various forms of animation. While necessary to bridge the language barrier, I found that the placement of the video, being not in line with the action on stage, distracted me from the action on the stage—the latter being more worthy of attention. I decided, then, to only glance at the video to get a sense of the song’s meaning. And in cases such as “Winterreise”, I am not sure if the audience needs every word; many of the songs express a similar sentiment albeit through different metaphors. Perhaps instead of a complete translation it would be more helpful to have fewer words that really focus on the image of each song; I’m thinking of what eighth blackbird did with Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”.
The success of COV continues to be about taste—in this case allowing Schubert’s music and Wilhelm Müller’s poetry to shine through Jungwirth and Silberstein. Still imaginative (with moments of experimentation), the production team never loses sight of the ultimate goal of expressing the original words and music. This is a great way to (re)discover one of Schubert’s most well-known song cycles.