By Xenia Hanusiak
NEW YORK – Two questions kept surfacing during the Bernard Foccroulle/Martin Crimp “encounter” with Schumann’s Dichterliebe: What if you failed to read the program notes? And what would happen to this piece if Julia Bullock were not singing? In both cases, the answer is that the work would come close to collapsing.
Zauberland can’t technically be called a work – an opera, a music-theater piece, a liederabend, or an installation – because the creators describe their offering as an encounter, which, as the dictionary says, is an unexpected experience, a meeting with an adversary, or an engagement with conflict. Encounter is fine — after all, Zauberland is a juxtaposition of a 19th-century romantic song-cycle with a 21st-century score. It is important to be open to the range of nomenclature for a contemporary work.
On paper, Zauberland – presented Oct. 29-30 by Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College – is full of promise: the luminous, rising soprano Julia Bullock, an accomplished pianist (Cédric Tiberghien), a distinguished dramatist (Crimp), a skilled composer (Foccroulle), and an insightful director (Katie Mitchell). But despite this stewardship, the audience is left with not just a problematic night in the theater, but also, more perplexingly, a deeply disheartening experience. How could this have happened?
The question of whether audiences need to be forewarned and prepared with program notes is not an argument to decide here. In the case of Zauberland (Magic Land), however, the printed program is our only guide for comprehending the narrative. According to that text, this is a fictitious story of a young pregnant woman (Bullock) escaping Syria. She is an opera singer. She leaves her husband behind in Aleppo and moves to Cologne, where she gives birth to a daughter. In a precognitive dream on the eve of her husband’s death, the woman sings Schumann’s Dichterliebe. The wistful cycle, with its themes of love, transience, and solitude, confronts her memories of the realities of her former life in Aleppo, and the terrors of her journey to asylum.
In hands of the creators and director, this story becomes a non-chronological mosaic of the Schumann song cycle and 16 songs composed by Foccroulle in a post-Schoenberg impressionistic setting for Crimp’s text. Bullock takes on the full charge of these duties with an elegance and beauty that belie the magnitude of her enterprise. A quartet of actors – three men and a woman — serve as glorified costumiers and stage managers, assisting the constant backwards and forwards interplay of past and future.
The challenge of this cut-and-paste style is an inherent complexity. With very little recognition of the story as printed in the program reproduced onstage, the lacuna between our expectations and what transpires begins to impede appreciation. Despite the emotions of the music, we are confused and left out in the cold.
Independently, Foccroulle’s songs merit another reading in a recital setting, and perhaps then we might appreciate the narrative arch of this song cycle that truly functions as a dramatic monologue.
The most glorious moments transpired at the beginning of the evening, when Bullock and Tiberghien, isolated and alone, brought the emotional landscape of Schumann’s score to life, summoning a whisper of the magic promised in the title.
Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy. www.xeniahanusiak.com.