The ‘Winterreise’ Bandwagon Makes A Stop In Texas

In the Mercury chamber ensemble’s staged and orchestrated version of Schubert’s song cycle ‘Winterreise,’ tenor Nicholas Phan portrays the disconsolate traveler, and actor Kaitlin Kennedy is his lost love. (Photos: BEND Productions)

HOUSTON – Mercury Baroque was formed in Houston in 2000 and later shortened its name to just Mercury so it could widen its artistic focus to include later eras. I suspect the organization decided to create a staged and orchestrated version of Schubert’s Winterreise for the sake of completeness: Mercury presented a similar production of the composer’s Die schöne Müllerin last season. But presumably the outfit didn’t foresee that with its expanded take on the classic song cycle for voice and piano, given its world premiere Feb. 15 in Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater with tenor Nicholas Phan, it would be climbing aboard what has turned out to be a genuine bandwagon.

Antoine Plante conducted his arrangement of ‘Winterreise,’ with tenor Nicholas Phan.

In 2019, Winterreise was performed in New York, San Francisco (as Trip’n’n Winter), Cambridge, Mass., Bowling Green, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kalamazoo, Santa Fe, Washington, D.C., Seattle (in the Pike Place Market, where complimentary wine and “Viennese confections” were provided), New Hampshire, Wyoming, Indiana, London, Prague, Toronto, Australia, Israel, Ireland (in English translation), Belgium, France (a staged version featuring a dozen dancers, while in Canada just one sufficed), and Milan’s La Scala opera house. The performers included internationally known singers (Joyce Di Donato, Simon Keenlyside, Matthias Goerne, Christian Gerhaher) and university music school faculty members. The vocal duties have been assumed by a quartet of singers, the partners have included a string quartet and one using period instruments, and last month Philippe Sly even employed a klezmer band.

Lufthansa Airlines has included in its menu of in-flight entertainment the latest recording of the work by self-confessed Winterreise fanatic Ian Bostridge; the scholarly British tenor’s exhaustive 500-page study of the work is subtitled “Anatomy of an Obsession.” A version by director William Kentridge that was seen in San Francisco and Japan was augmented by 24 stop-action films, and in a few weeks, Austin Opera will present a wide-ranging production boasting 3-D projections of Times Square, the Bonneville Salt Flats, a cheap Houston hotel room, a blizzard in Brooklyn, and a Des Moines graveyard.

Nicholas Phan sings ‘Der Leiermann,’ last song of ‘Winterreise.’

In 1993, German conductor/composer Hans Zender (1936‒2019) devised a modernistic “composed interpretation” of Winterreise for a small orchestra enhanced with a guitar, harp, accordion, and wind machine. Mercury co-founder and artistic director Antoine Plante invented a more conventional backup with his bandoneon virtuoso brother Denis, who also designed and directed the new piece. The polished 12-member string orchestra laid down a cushiony foundation for “Der Lindenbaum.” “Rückblick” was driven by churning music as stormy as the first pages of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Pizzicati lent crispness to “Letzte Hoffnung.” “Täuschung” unfurled with the smooth lilt of a Viennese waltz, and the droning strings gave a fine imitation of the hurdy-gurdy in “Der Leiermann.”

Actor Kaitlin Kennedy took wordless part in a few of the songs in Denis Plante’s staging. When the narrator, clad warmly in a fur-trimmed coat worthy of an Inuit, bids farewell to his sleeping lover in the opening song, “Gute Nacht,” she is lying onstage under a blanket. Later she mimes the oscillation of a weather vane in “Die Wetterfahne” while in her nightgown, subsequently dons a puffy fur ensemble, then swaps it in “Frühlingstraum” for Bermuda shorts. Phan soon jettisoned his coat and warm boots in favor of gray pants, a red T-shirt, and stocking feet (he not only stopped dressing sensibly for winter but also pecked at a portable typewriter in “Gefror’ne Tränen” and “Das Wirtshaus”), but both he and Kennedy kept frigid air at bay by shrouding themselves in blankets for “Einsamkeit.”

There were a few striking directorial touches. When the narrator talks about not getting a letter from his beloved in “Die Post, the song (the 13th in the 24-number cycle) and the first half of the program ended in a confetti-like blizzard of missives from the sky. The second half of his journey toward a welcome death took place in what looked like a hospital waiting room, where Kennedy sported a white lab coat. For “Die Krähe” (The Crow), she donned a long-beaked bird mask suitable for a Renaissance plague doctor. In “Letzte Hoffnung,” Phan grabbed an IV stand from which he plucked pieces of paper representing the tree leaves mentioned in the song. For “Der Leiermann,” he turned the stand upside down and slowly spun it, the base revolving overhead like the cranked wheel in a hurdy-gurdy.

For his part, Phan deployed a strong, clear, dynamically flexible tenor and, when he chose, the ability to fuse notes into arching legato lines. But notes were often disconnected, not smoothly joined, and phrase endings were frequently clipped. And in the slower songs such as “Der Lindenbaum,” “Wasserflut,” and “Irrlicht,” Antoine Plante’s strings-massaging tempos were so spacious that the melodic through-lines went slack.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.