Chicago Opera Vanguard offers a modern, theatrical take on Schubert’s winter journey

Sun Mar 07, 2010 at 11:47 am

By Bryant Manning

Franz Schubert’s 1827 song cycle Winterreise might not be a modern opera company’s first choice for “edgy” fare, but the visionary Chicago Opera Vanguard knows daring and eccentric material when it sees it.

Set to Wilhelm Muller’s vivid and icy poetry, Schubert’s bleak score follows a lovelorn wanderer who falls deeper and deeper into mental disrepair. Cawing crows, frozen tears and a deranged hurdy-gurdy man are, indeed, the stuff of alternative theater.

On Friday night the folks at COV offered an artful, imaginative staging of this exemplar of German lieder. While the very limiting space of the Menomonee Club Drucker Center in Lincoln Park was the production’s own worst enemy, the extreme closeness of this salon-like atmosphere seemed to intensify the anguish of the traveler.

Brad Jungwirth

Brad Jungwirth vigorously portrayed the crestfallen lover on the verge of existential breakdown. A muscular baritone with an evocatively dark instrument, Jungwirth sang arduously for ninety uninterrupted minutes, never flagging during the course of these 24 exhausting songs. At the height of his powers, the Roosevelt University grad sang Einsamkeit with convincing tortured affliction.

Movement director Karen Yates coached a dancer (Brian Barber) and two actors (Sophie Gatins, Jessica Sheffield) to silently fulfill the many guises of the wanderer’s tortured conscience. Most of the time, their physical language of hand gestures provided a helpful framework for the narrative. (The projected translations, often obscured from the production’s props, were of little value.)

But this trio’s freewheeling movements constantly felt impeded by the close, circular arrangement of the audience’s chairs. As a result, Joshua Pfaff’s angsty, Expressionistic video images were virtually out of view.

The music-making, however, was consistently strong. Pianist Myron Silberstein did unflinching work on the room’s two clunky uprights, stationed on either side of the room. For the work’s eerie organ-grinder finale, he slung an accordion on his shoulder and performed a stunning version of Der Leiermann. The sheer emotional starkness of this scene marked the pinnacle of Eric Reda’s thoughtful direction.

There were several other creative touches that sprung Muller’s libretto to life. A functional but intrusive willowy curtain hung in the middle of the performance space and was mutable enough, in one instance, to take the shape of the lime tree (Der Lindenbaum). A blue rug was unfurled to produce a babbling brook (Auf dem Flusse), and Jungwirth warmed himself in front of a tiny television playing a glowing fire (Rast). Various sound effects filled in the silence between songs.

That said, did it all improve on the simplicity of a male voice and piano in the time-honored recital setting? For the most part, yes. There were times Friday where the action was so dizzying that it was hard to stay planted in the traveler’s mind. Yet Schubert’s nocturnal score and Muller’s haunting texts are vivid enough to withstand any muddled staging and busy choreography that can distract from these essentials.

Ultimately, COV’s swirlingly weird production was transparent enough to give Schubert’s aching masterpiece the theatrical makeover it probably deserves.

Chicago Opera Vanguard’s Winterreise runs through March 21.

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