As every art singer and lieder lover knows, Schubert’s “Winterreise” (“Winter’s Journey”) is indeed a journey, an epic narrative that depends on the singer and the pianist to “tell” its story over twenty-four songs. So why not make this explicit and actually “stage” what is going on in the text and music? That is the deceptively simple thought behind Chicago Opera Vanguard’s staging of “Winterreise.”
Director Eric Reda gives us a bleak, dark, in-the-round setting with two spinet pianos and DVD projectors situated across from one another and surrounding the audience, separated by white translucent material suspended from the ceiling that will be transformed and constantly relit along the journey.
A screen and a white wall serve not only as subtitles for English translations of the German poetry as it is sung, but also adds remarkably effective winter imagery that reflects what is being alluded to. So, for instance, when the traveler alludes to the lonely winter’s road, that is not only evoked in the text and music, but we are shown black-and-white films of snow drifting across an empty road. When the traveler sings of tears, we see haunting images of tears falling off the cheek of a skeletal face, et al. When a weathervane is alluded to, we see it and an entire Expressionistic town, cartoon Caligari-like. A small television set at one point becomes a snowy Yule log, etc.
Three dancers—two female, in white dresses, and one male—add an element of performance art to the telling, sometimes in a claustrophobic manner up and down the space, often inches away from audience members. All of this does a good job of expressing how caught the storyteller is in his dreams and ideals of love that cannot be his.
Of course, none of this would mean much if the musical goods were not there, and happily, baritone Brad Jungwirth has the heft and color to make this all work and pianist/musical director Myron Silberstein sets the proper mood across two pianos, and even with an accordion for the piece’s heart-wrenching finale. (Dennis Polkow)
Chicago Opera Vanguard‘s ‘Winterreise” plays through March 21at Menomonee Club Drucker Center’s Fasseas White Box Theatre, 1535 N. Dayton. $25.