The long-awaited date arrived: Jonas Kaufmann finally stepped out into the stripped-down Act 3 set from La Traviata, with Helmut Deutsch at the piano, to give a performance of Schubert’s intense song-cycle Winterreise. And it was as remarkable as it was expected to be, more so perhaps than the recent CD issue suggested.
The Royal Opera House is not, of course, natural Winterreise territory. With house lights half up, so that we could be in a perpetual state of confusion between printed words in the programme and surtitles over the stage, the auditorium basked in a warm effusion of gold and red velvet; the words being sung on stage were defiantly chillier.
Kaufmann’s skill was in undercutting his usual brand of high-voltage, big-voiced intensity, replacing it with a mesmerising stillness, only occasionally breached by dramatic outbursts appropriate to the songs. Winterreise was not hurled out at the audience in grand opera style, you had to lean in to him to catch the words being crafted, the nuances, the lilts, the sculpting of phrases. The audience was here to work for its rewards: in fact, to walk the long journey with the narrator.
It’s a bit unfortunate that the audience didn’t have its stout walking boots on, or perhaps had collectively forgotten its inhaler. Two thirds of the way through, as the journey begins to meander through territory perhaps less varied than has gone before, the audience reached a crescendo of ill-controlled coughing, most notably disrupting any sense of repose between the songs. They probably aren’t much worse than at the Wigmore, it’s maybe just unfortunate that there were four times as many of them.
Many moments, though, could still be utterly stunning. Poised, gentle pianissimos beautifully illuminated the line: none more so than in Der Leiermann that closes the cycle, sung in such an agonised, ethereal half-tone and ending with a dying note that could break hearts… and then an extended, enforced silence that was magic itself, these final moments overcoming the audience’s earlier distraction. Throughout, Deutsch provided graceful, thoughtful pianistic support.
And yet, and yet… I still don’t think I know how to listen to Winterreise. I hear individual songs and can be captivated (Gute Nacht, Der Lindenbaum, Frühlingstraum, Die Post, Im Dorfe, Rückblick, and Der Leiermann are amongst those that most speak to me); others have less impact (I remain baffled by the poem of Die Nebensonnen); and overall, I struggle to comprehend the architecture of the cycle overall. However impressive Kaufmann was, I just wasn’t overwhelmed emotionally in any consistent way. Perhaps that’s the distinction that captures the slight sense of ambiguity I had at the end: impressed rather than impassioned.
Many questions come to mind. Would a baritone somehow capture the poetic wisdom behind the despair, where a tenor conjures up a more passionate youth? Is Kaufmann’s heroic opera demeanour, however skilfully tempered (and it undoubtedly was), still a more extrovert style than that which pervades the Schubert piece? Does Winterreise‘s intimate tragedy progressively lose its impact as you add any number of audience members above a privileged, solitary observer?
Or ultimately, however nice these questions, are they redundant? A great piece of art, a complex piece of art, executed to the very highest level by a performer of rare quality, providing moments to savour alongside longer spans to ponder over. Whatever the ambiguity that this conjures up, much like the Die Frau ohne Schatten, it really doesn’t get much better than this, does it?