"Rich and strange." Shakespeare's phrase from The Tempest gets applied with regularity to Thomas Adès' eponymous opera. But it's a fit description of the greatest song-cycle that Schubert or anybody else ever composed: Winterreise. At first glance, ***image1***what an unpromising subject. What could be more banal than a series of gloomy interior monologues by a rejected lover as he tramps through a winter landscape? Nothing much happens, not even suicide.
It's cold. Dogs bark and snarl. Enroute to nowhere, the narrator encounters a weathervane, a signpost, a crow, a hurdy-gurdy man. That's about it. Still, in his setting of Wilhelm Müller's 24 meditative poems, Schubert shows us a vision of grief-stricken life and loss as powerful in its highly compressed way as anything the great tragedians could describe.
Without question, the strangest and richest of my many encounters with Winterreise happened a long time ago at a recital by Aksel Schiøtz. The great Danish tenor had by then suffered tumors and surgeries that left him partially paralyzed, his voice lower, his speech diminished. Nevertheless, his Winterreise was unforgettable, the distillation of a lifetime of singing and teaching lieder.
A very different Winterreise happened last Friday at a recital sponsored jointly by the Santa Fe Chamber Music ***image2***Festival and the Santa Fe Opera at St. Francis Auditorium. The singer, baritone Laurent Naouri, has had plenty of experience on the opera stage. His big-voiced, sexy Escamillo joins the Carmen cast this month. But in this, his first venture on the winter journey, Naouri offered a promising account of the cycle that became a convincing portrayal of suffering and blank understanding.
After a tentative beginning with "Gute Nacht," he presented the narrator as a very young man, by turns angry, resigned, bitter, given to furious mood swings. His ferocious "Auf dem Flusse" gave way to the naked grief of "Rückblick" and the weary isolation of "Rast." Naouri gained power and finesse as the cycle progressed. By the last half-dozen songs he was in full command, singing nobly and with confidence. In the haunting final song, "Der Leiermann," Naouri hit exactly the right tone, mingling suspense with the longing for an uncanny partnership in song.
In pianist Robert Tweten, he found another partner, subtle, solid and sympathetic. After the previously announced pianist suffered a shoulder injury, Naouri and Tweten had only five days together to prepare a cycle neither of them had performed. With these artists' skill and understanding, you'd never have known it.