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Ridiculous though it may sound, I sometimes think of Schubert’s Winterreise as a classical-music Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. To be clear: I am not comparing the prose stylings of author Ann Brashares (whose books follow a quartet of teens who discover a pair of jeans that magically fits each one of them) to that of the greatest song-cycle ever written. But I am fascinated by a work that seems to fit any number of performers across gender, vocal type, and individual approach. I was eager to hear Joyce DiDonato and Yannick Nézet-Séguin offer their own take at Princeton.
Originally written for a tenor, the 24-song composition has been essayed by baritones and basses, sopranos and contraltos, and has even been adapted for the trombone. It’s become something of a test piece for singers who have achieved a certain level of recognition, and connoisseurs love to compare how each artist approaches the work.
Mezzo-soprano DiDonato is familiar to Philadelphians from her student days at the Academy of Vocal Arts and as a frequent guest in Verizon Hall. She has enlisted a blue-chip musical partner: Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, trades in his baton for a piano, serving as accompanist. After debuting their interpretation last December in Kansas City, DiDonato and Nézet-Séguin performed at Princeton University on December 11, and will appear at Carnegie Hall on December 15.
DiDonato possesses the talent and intelligence to deliver a truly first-rate Winterreise. Unfortunately, what she and Nézet-Séguin offered in Princeton fell far short of that standard. The evening felt like a rough sketch of what could have been, hampered by a strange and confounding extra-textual frame that distanced the audience from the expressiveness of Schubert’s music.
Trust the text
The evening’s deficits had nothing to do with DiDonato’s vocal abilities. Her agile mezzo is secure throughout its range, with plummy low notes and an upper register that, while somewhat flinty, can turn lean and focused. Her overall timbre has grown richer and more rounded since I first started hearing her live in the early 2000s. She can spin out a legato line with flawless breath control. Musically speaking, you could hardly ask for a better sung interpretation.
Yet concertizing requires more than beautiful sound—and that is especially true of a piece like Winterreise, which mines extraordinary emotional depths. My sense after this performance was that DiDonato doesn’t fully trust the power of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry. Why else would she apply a gimmicky narrative device that proved distracting, and often took her away from imbuing the words of these songs with much meaning?
The singer in Winterreise takes on the persona of the speaker in Müller’s poems: a young man (or woman) coping with the desolation of love lost. DiDonato, however, casts herself as the subject of these songs, the lover who inspired her partner’s downward spiral. In a bit of semi-staging, she enters and finds a scorebook sitting forlorn and abandoned on a bistro table. This stands in as the speaker’s journal, which she reads slavishly throughout the performance.
Focus on the frame
What are we supposed to make of this? In a program note, DiDonato references a kinship to the character of Charlotte from Massenet’s Werther. Has the speaker then died by suicide, as Werther famously does, and his beloved is now accessing his private writings post mortem? Is the bit with the scorebook just a clever way to disguise a lack of memorization?
I doubt it—DiDonato is too smart for that. But the overreliance on the invented framing device is clearly the focal point, and as such, there is a sense of indifference about the music itself. The songs end up sounding virtually interchangeable. Even the concluding “Der Leiermann,” which could wrench a tear from a glass eye, seemed strangely passive and disaffected. DiDonato’s German language skills are impressive for an American-born singer, but she rarely made individual words count; only in “Das Wirtshaus,” a plaintive ballad about being turned away from an inn, did she connect with the text in a meaningful way.
Podium to piano
For his part, Nézet-Séguin proved a sensitive accompanist. He favored slightly slower tempos, and I appreciated that he let little time pass between songs, creating the sense of a seamless musical statement. His interpretation is slightly more lush and limpid than I prefer in this music, but if this performance is any indication, he’s as valuable on the piano bench as he is on the podium.
Winterreise is the kind of piece that singers return to throughout their careers. I hope that DiDonato’s next stab will focus more on the words and music itself, rather than on contrivance.
What, When, Where
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on piano. Franz Schubert; Winterreise, Op. 89, D. 911. Presented by Princeton University Concerts on December 11, 2019, at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, 68 Nassau St., Princeton, NJ. (609) 258-9220 or princetonuniversityconcerts.org.
This program will be repeated at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, December 15, 2019.
Richardson Auditorium has eight wheelchair platforms, each with companion seats, located on the main level of the auditorium. There are also four private, accessible restrooms located on the ground-floor lobby. Accessible parking adjacent to the auditorium is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
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