Sunday, December 22, 2019

Schubert's "Winterreise" performed by three women singers in a new production of Shirit Lee Weiss at the Israeli Opera

In 1827, one year before his death, Franz Schubert set texts by Wilhelm Müller to music, giving rise to “Winterreise” (Winter’s Journey). It was composed almost entirely using minor keys, its mournful character reflecting some of the personal trauma that Schubert himself was experiencing at the time. What Schubert introduced to his friends at a private performance as a “cycle of terrifying songs” has become one of the most performed- and recorded song cycles. German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation of it was to form a major association with the work for many years. He made his first commercial recording of it with Gerald Moore in 1955 and was to make more recordings - with Jörg Demus, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel and a final version in 1990, with Murray Perahia. But other great artists have since made their mark on reading into “Winterreise”; the work has also inspired some less-conventional presentations, reworkings and arrangements, such as the tensely atmospheric performance by German tenor Julian Prégardien (and his father Christoph) with the controversial Hans Zender’s arrangement of Schubert’s piano part for small orchestra of classical instruments, with the addition of accordion, saxophone, xylophone and wind machine. “Winterreise” has also been performed with dance. Controversial as hearing women performing a text associated with a male protagonist might be, the song cycle has been recorded by such prominent women singers as Lotte Lehman, Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender. But what about the feasibility of hearing it sung by three women? Curiosity as to this concept drew a sizable audience to an event of the Israeli Opera’s Chamber Music Series in Tel Aviv on December 19th 2019 to hear sopranos Hila Baggio and Yael Levita, mezzo-soprano Hagar Sharvit and pianist Yael Karet in a production of Schubert’s “Winterreise”; the theatrical dimension was directed by Shirit Lee Weiss. 


The stage of the Israeli Opera’s small hall was bare, save for some snowflakes, the only props being three chairs, with the piano at one side. The songs of the cycle were performed in their original order; there were no changes to the piano score. As the piano opened the cycle evoking the steps of the burdened protagonist leaving the town of his beloved, it was accompanied by the sounds of breathing, the three singers slowly moving forward, perhaps symbolically approaching the audience to invite us to join them on what was to be a powerful, impassioned journey. “Winterreise” does not have a clear plot. The emphasis is on thoughts and emotions: fear, loneliness and pain, but also on love, dreams and hope. No mere accompaniment, Schubert’s piano score is part-and-parcel of the work, setting the scene for each song, closing each miniature scene, commenting, endorsing, indeed, sometimes adding wisdom to what the protagonist does not manage to observe in his dire predicament. At the Tel Aviv performance, each song text was sung either by one singer or divided among the three. There was, however, no doubling of the vocal line - only the occasional mouthing of words at the conclusion of a specific song by the two not singing, seemingly validating a gesture. What was indisputable was the depth of enquiry into the meaning and emotion of each song undertaken by each of the singers and reinforced by articulate diction. (For non-German speakers, translation into Hebrew was projected onto a screen.)  But what was ground-breaking about Shirit Lee Weiss’s production was that (in contrast to the protagonist’s predicament of being totally alone to deal with his plight in a wintry European landscape) here we are presented with the emotional interactions of three women to each other. As dictated by each Lied, their reactions and actions fluctuated between support, affection, empathy, pain, anger, horror, frustration and rejection, indicated not only by their singing but also by their body language, their facial expressions mirroring each turn of emotion of the verbal- and musical texts. It was a very physical performance, adding a whole new dimension to Schubert’s “Winterreise”, yet leaving the incomparable work unchanged, unmarred and as real, as moving and as disturbing as the songs (in the composer’s own words to his circle of artist friends) that “have affected me more than any others”,  but now presented on a new, differently personal but communal niveau.


Yael Levita, Hila Baggio and Hagar Sharvit display lush, fresh vocal timbres, a wide emotional range and innate musicality. All opera soloists on the Israeli- and international scene, they engage well with the Lied genre. Musical director and pianist of the production, Yael Karet has appeared widely with orchestras and singers in Israel and overseas. Today, she works in several capacities at the Israeli Opera and is a member of the Israeli Chamber Project. Her playing of the piano role in the “Winterreise” project was judicious in timing, insightful and sensitive, creating the mood and soundscape of each song and generating a consolidated and dedicated joint performance. Since her return from the USA, Shirit Lee Weiss has done much opera directing in Israel; she also teaches acting on the opera stage. Her stage direction of “Winterreise” was resourceful and original, poignant and powerful in its use of understatement. And the Israeli Opera’s small hall allows for audience and performers to engage at close proximity. A new and daring approach to Romantic vocal music, the Tel Aviv performance constituted a fruitful encounter of five outstanding home-grown artists. 

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