We live in a visual age. This extends to the world of song. MTV was founded way back in 1981. People are used to videos with their songs. In fact, the video may be the dominant thing.
Some years ago, Simon Keenlyside, the British baritone, participated in a choreographed Winterreise. A danced Winterreise. (We are speaking of one of Schubert’s great song-cycles, as you know.) This gave people something to look at, as well as listen to and ponder.
You can see stagings of Bach’s passions, too: the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion.
Last night at the Salzburg Festival, in the Great Festival Hall, Matthias Goerne, the German baritone, and Markus Hinterhäuser, the Austrian pianist who doubles as the artistic director of the festival, performed Winterreise. They did so in a production—I believe that is the word—by William Kentridge, the South African artist.
New Yorkers may know him for his productions of The Nose (Shostakovich) and Lulu (Berg) at the Metropolitan Opera. Those are two brilliant, apt productions. I say “apt” because they match the operas they are meant to serve.
Let me quote some publicity material. For Winterreise, Kentridge has “created a visual journey with videos (animation, collage, montage).” I believe the production is autobiographical. It must relate to Kentridge himself.
It certainly has South Africa in it—one sees the word “Johannesburg.” And there are figures, in silhouette, that are clearly African, including a woman who elegantly carries a basket on her head.
The production is busy, flitty, flicky. (That is the Kentridge style, judging from the opera productions I have seen.) It is artistically sharp. And it is no doubt deep and meaningful to those in the know.
Sitting there, I thought of a production of The Magic Flute, presented at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York a few weeks ago. Allow me to quote from my “New York Chronicle,” to appear in the next New Criterion:
The production came from the Komische Oper Berlin, and it was co-directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky. This is a smart, clever, enjoyable, imaginative production. It is filled with videos, or animation. It is funny too, with some outright “lolz”: people laughed out loud, all around me. . . .
The production is very, very busy—flitty. Is it distracting? That is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. To my eye, and ear, the production distracted from the music. The music was a mere soundtrack to the show. . . . I sometimes looked away, so I could listen to the music. . . .
I left midway through Act II. I admired the production, but, at the same time, it hurt my eyes, and I had had enough. I have no doubt this was a minority opinion.
If one does not care for William Kentridge’s accompaniment to Winterreise—if one does not want to watch the movie—one can simply close one’s eyes and listen to Schubert. I did some of each last night in the Great Festival Hall. I watched the movie and also closed my eyes, or looked away.
For a while, there was no video, no movie, at all. I thought, “That’s interesting. Kentridge is giving us some relief. He is drawing attention to the music.” But it turned out that some machinery was broken (if I understood correctly). The movie soon resumed.
How was the performance? Goerne was Goerne: gorgeous voice, beautiful German, exemplary breathing, true intonation, clear understanding. He did nothing precious or mannered (which has been a problem in the past, in my opinion). His partner, Hinterhäuser, played with intelligence and musicality. Also an absence of ego. He was a transparency for Schubert, and a partner to the singer.
I will give you an interesting aside about stage comportment: traditionally, the singer enters and exits the stage, followed by the pianist. The pianist always trails. Last night, Goerne and Hinterhäuser, or Hinterhäuser and Goerne, did the opposite.
You could have your choice: you could ignore, to a degree, the film by Kentridge, or you could embrace it, having the totality of the intended experience. Either way, it was a rewarding night.