Schubert Transfigured: Dramatized Song Cycle Taps Heart Of Mortality

Jonas Kaufmann is a World War I soldier facing his mortality in ‘Doppelgänger,’ which was staged at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. (Photos by Monika Rittershaus)

NEW YORK — Song recitals are often a showcase for refinement: The singer’s most flawless tones combine with the pianist’s elegant flourishes in an exquisite display of subtle perfection. But early 19th-century poetry had plenty of emotion, and in Doppelgänger, Claus Guth’s staging of songs from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, raw feeling trumped polite perfection for a stark dramatization at the Park Avenue Armory (seen Sept. 22). Supported by his longtime collaborator, pianist Helmut Deutsch, and 28 dancers, tenor Jonas Kaufmann embodied a World War I soldier confronting his own death.

What is it like to face your own mortality? Schubert had some ideas, which he worked out in the last songs he wrote before succumbing to a long illness at the age of 31. Unlike Schubert’s earlier, true song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, with their coherent narrative arcs, the poems of Swan Song are thematically related but do not form a unified whole. It was his publisher who had the idea of issuing these last songs as a posthumous collection, combining two short groups of settings of contemporary poets Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine, and also throwing in Schubert’s very last song, the cheery but unrelated “Die Taubenpost.” The poems replay the narrator’s memories of disappointment in love and alienation. The often ironic Rellstab poems are leavened with nature imagery; the Heine verses are more overtly anguished and introverted.

The Park Avenue Armory’s vast Wade Thompson Drill Hall, itself a 19th-century military facility, was set up as a makeshift hospital ward of 63 beds.

Guth, one of Germany’s most thoughtful regie opera directors, also had some ideas about this dark threshold and how to convey the isolation of the final extreme moments of life. For Doppelgänger, he crafted a narrative of a dying soldier, tweaking the order of and stitching together the 13 (plus one) short songs, omitting the unrelated last song, and adding a movement from Schubert’s final piano sonata. Transitional music by Mathis Nitschke combined the songs with snippets of Schubert and incorporated extra-musical sounds for atmosphere. The set by Michael Levine, costumes by Constance Hoffman, lighting by Urs Schönebaum, sound design by Mark Grey, video by Rocafilm, and movement direction by Ramses Sigl created an integrated, dynamic installation that felt very distant from the city outside.

The vast Wade Thompson Drill Hall, itself a 19th-century military facility, was set up as a makeshift hospital ward of 63 beds, spaced widely in nine rows, with bleachers along the two long sides of the hall. A continuous, low-pitched electronic hum filled the room, interrupted every so often by a loud crash, disturbing soldiers who lay in some of the beds. Every so often a line of six nurses strode the length of the ward. The lights dimmed, and the pianist began to play chords in a repeated dotted rhythm, which eventually became the introduction to “Kriegers Ahnung.” At the sudden forte chord in the fourth measure, one of the sick men jerked awake with a gasp — Kaufmann, in the role of a wounded soldier.

Pianist Helmut Deutsch played Schubert songs and a movement from the composer’s final piano sonata.

For the first eight songs of the cycle, the Soldier, in khaki fatigues and barefoot, roamed the floor as he sang, bewildered at his lot, of his life and lost loves, and addressed different groups of onlookers. Between each song, repeated motifs from the piano accompaniment formed a musical bridge, the repetition emphasizing the Soldier’s obsessive memories; ominous electronic sounds remind us of the ongoing war. Intricate, precise lighting guided the eye and regulated the emotional temperature. The other wounded soldiers moved restlessly in their beds or rose to rearrange the beds, beat out a tattoo on the bedframes or flirted with the nurses, who by turns stood in as caretakers, sirens, mothers, sweethearts. 

At the interpolated “Herbst,” the Soldier took a hit; as he fell to the ground he was showered by falling leaves — or were they rose petals? He stood up and frantically stalked the ward, pulling off the covers of empty beds to reveal masses of scarlet leaves — or were they bloodied linens? He curled up on a pile of bedclothes in the middle of a clearing surrounded by beds, clutching his blood-soaked abdomen. Around him, the other soldiers listened peacefully to a piano interlude, the Andante sostenuto of Schubert’s final sonata, D. 960, with its gently rocking rhythm both soothing and suggestive of a death knell.

The Soldier (Kaufmann) is haunted by images of war and death.

After the piano interlude, Heine’s poetry introduced a more hopeless, introverted, and obsessive tone. The sounds of war grew more intense, with ordnance exploding and soldiers arranging the beds into bunkers. For one particularly chilling moment, the silent shadow of a bomber passed over the ward. Sinking into reverie, the Soldier was struck again, this time mortally. He staggered to his bed, and the soldiers carried him in a cortège around the hall. In a shocking breach of the fourth wall, a loading door opened onto Lexington Avenue, with its nighttime traffic, and a harsh spotlight blazed across the hall. The Soldier rose and unsteadily headed toward the light and out to the street as he sang the haunting “Die Stadt.” When he came back into the ward, singing “Die Doppelgänger,” in which the narrator sees his own ghost, he was trailed by an identical figure following in his footsteps, zombie-like. Spotting his ghostly double, the Soldier collapsed — and blackout.

This rough description is only a pallid sketch of one of the most powerful evenings I have ever spent in a theater. I felt as if I were hearing Schubert for the first time and understanding what he was trying to communicate about love, life, and death.

New York audiences have seen little of star tenor Kaufmann in recent years. Since his 2013 run of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, he has largely confined his opera appearances to smaller houses in Europe, where his current repertoire — in operas like Aida, Turandot, Otello, and La Gioconda — is less taxing to sing than in America’s super-sized opera houses. Locals have had to content themselves with a few recitals, concert and opera streams, and recordings, though some of Kaufmann’s recent commercial releases of popular fare have frustrated many fans. But Doppelgänger showed a fully invested artist in his prime. Unencumbered by the rituals and distractions of the concert hall (like audience members filming), the tenor was free to concentrate on his character’s inner journey; his sustained focus and energy compensated for direction that occasionally felt repetitive.

A cortège carried the dead Soldier around the hall.

Kaufmann’s famously baritonal timbre suited the low-lying and introspective opening song. His voice warmed up slowly, early displaying a gruff burr, emphasized by amplification, that didn’t quite caress the light high passages of “Liebesbotschaft” and “Ständchen.” But in the later, bitter Heine songs the voice was more supple, filled with plangent high notes or softly insinuating in the midrange. Kaufmann is often accused of crooning, but in this context the technique embodied the inner voice of suffering. And, of course, years of performing Schubert with the wonderful Deutsch have burnished his assurance in this style. In addition to his vocal qualities, the tenor moved with the suppleness and vigor of a young man in a staging that demanded plenty of physicality.

Doppelgänger received only five performances in New York, but a hopeful post on the director’s Instagram indicates that performances were filmed and future engagements in Europe are under discussion. If the opportunity to see this arises, preferably in person but also on video, don’t miss it.