Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Winterreise: Simon Keenlyside @ Barbican Hall, London

16 and 18 September 2003

Simon Keenlyside is not only Britain’s finest lyric baritone but also its most active. This is the singer who scales walls as Don Giovanni, somersaults into bed with Papagena even when sporting a broken wrist (from falling through a Royal Opera House trapdoor) and is palpably uncomfortable when merely standing by the piano for a recital.

Fitting therefore that he should have approached Trisha Brown, the choreographer with whom he collaborated on a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Barbican in 1998, to stage Schubert’s last song-cycle Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). Equally at home with lieder as with opera, Keenlyside wanted to find a new kind of project that would transcend the limitations of the recital format and the constraints of standard opera productions.

Schubert is often thought of as a composer of beautiful, carefree songs. Winterreise is certainly beautiful but it is a very bleak, melancholy beauty, setting 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller that tell of a wanderer through a winter landscape, isolated and alienated from society and the world.

Keenlyside’s haunting voice, with its impressive range, combines with stylised movements from the singer and up to three dancers to give visual presence to the emotions described in the songs – occasionally hopeful (Der Lindenbaum, Dream of Spring) but more often longing for death. The choreography and the simple staging (basic androgynous costumes, simple lighting changes as the only props) bring them an immediacy that is refreshing and at times heartbreaking.

In the opening song (Good Night) shadows of The Wanderer and the girl he has left behind (dead? deserted? – we are never sure) loom vast on the backdrop, the shadow hands and bodies touching even when we can see that the corporeal figures are far apart. In others simple arm movements create trees or birds, or bodies become a frozen stream, the movement underneath unable to break through the icy crust.

The final song – The Organ-grinder – is devastating: as a dancer projects eerie black shadows on the backdrop, Keenlyside himself has moved out of the light so that he becomes a disembodied voice, in effect already dead while life goes on.

How typical of this self-effacing and modest performer that after the initial curtain calls involving the whole team (including the fine accompanist Pedja Muzijevic and Trisha Brown) he almost forgot that without his particular combination of talents, an evening like this would simply not be possible. Finally taking a solo call, the applause must have left him in no doubt that this is one national asset we treasure highly.

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More on Simon Keenlyside
Winterreise review – Keenlyside and Middleton close the Leeds Lieder Festival in style
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Macbeth @ Royal Opera House, London
Keenlyside / Martineau @ Wigmore Hall, London
The Final Fling with Simon Keenlyside and Jazz Friends @ Grange Park Opera, West Horsley