The New York Times, Sept. 20, 2023
By Joshua Barone
Schubert at the Vast Park Avenue Armory: Intimate, Lonely, Exposed
The tenor Jonas Kaufmann stars in “Doppelganger,” a staging of “Schwanengesang” by Claus Guth, making his New York debut.

In Schubert’s song “Der Doppelgänger,” a piano resounds with increasingly tormented chords as the narrator recounts a realization: that a pained stranger, wringing his hands in the night, is in fact himself.

“I think there is something like a moment where your soul steps out, and your body is there,” the director Claus Guth said about the song over coffee in Munich. “It’s this shocking moment: You understand that you’re dying.”

That instant, he said, is the heart of “Schwanengesang,” the posthumous collection of Schubert’s final songs, which is often performed as a cycle, like the composer’s canonical “Die Schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise.” And it’s that harrowing, transitional state that has inspired Guth’s staging of “Schwanengesang,” called “Doppelganger,” which premieres at the Park Avenue Armory in New York on Friday.

The production — featuring the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann performing with his longtime collaborator, the pianist Helmut Deutsch — will be the New York debut of Guth, one of the most sought-after opera directors in Europe.

Schubert’s music is regularly presented in the Armory’s intimate Board of Officers Room, the site of most of the arts center’s recitals. But the composer’s songs, like those of “Schwanengesang,” originally sung in parlors, are much less expected, and seemingly ill-suited, for the vast drill hall. But “Doppelganger” will unfold there amid an installation (designed by Michael Levine) of more than 60 hospital beds occupied by wounded soldiers. Kaufmann will rise from one of them, to think back on his life at the moment of his death.

The path to “Doppelganger” was long, and not just because the production, originally planned for fall 2020, was delayed by pandemic closures. Years ago, Pierre Audi, the Armory’s artistic director, approached Guth and Kaufmann about a music theater project for the drill hall, inspired by little more than their prestige and friendship, which goes back to their education at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich.

“I gave them carte blanche to propose something,” said Audi, one of the few dreamers in New York who can still commission work on the monumental scale of the Armory. Kaufmann said that he and Guth discussed music by Strauss, Mahler and Wagner, as well as Janacek’s frequently staged cycle “The Diary of One Who Disappeared.”

But the idea of mounting, say, Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” didn’t appeal to Guth. “If you have this huge orchestra, it will be the same structure you have at a normal concert,” he said. “So, how to get this very specific situation of not being in the opera house or concert hall? We thought it would be great to have in this huge hall just this lonely singer exposed.”

They arrived at the idea of a song recital. And from there, Guth said, “It must be Schubert.”

He researched the history of the Armory, and was struck as much by its use as a hospital and shelter as by its housing of a militia regiment. “It’s interesting to think of this place not as a drill hall, but the opposite,” he said.

Guth also thought about the “Schwanengesang” song “Kriegers Ahnung,” in which a soldier worries about dying in battle and longs for “how cheerful the fireside glow seemed when she lay in my arms.” “My storytelling is, say, the last hour of this wounded soldier,” Guth said. “And in this last hour you see his flashbacks and his dreams.”

Levine — a collaborator with Guth on a Metropolitan Opera-bound production of Janacek’s “Jenufa” — responded to that idea with a design incorporating a dreamily expansive field of hospital beds, in part as an attempt to rise to the drill hall’s size.

“You want to address the space itself,” he said on a recent afternoon at the Armory, gesturing to the set as it was being arranged. “It’s a thrilling space to put anything in, and in a way it’s your responsibility to do justice to it. I’ve seen some beautiful, beautiful things here, but it’s not an easy space to get right.”

He first submitted his designs in early 2020, just as he was reading about how Wuhan, China — a city of roughly 8.5 million people — was shutting down because of Covid-19. He couldn’t imagine that; it would be like New York City doing the same. Once that happened too, he began to see pop-up hospitals similar to the one he had conceived for “Doppelganger.”

Now it has taken on an eerie resonance. Set vaguely in the first half of the 20th century, the production, with its rows and rows of beds, seems like a darkly familiar sight, especially to New Yorkers. And, Levine said, the isolation of a temporary hospital — whether during a war, as in “Doppelganger,” or somewhere like the Javits Center in the early days of the pandemic — is supported, even amplified, by Schubert’s music.

“There’s something lonely about these songs,” Levine said, “and there’s something quite lonely about this space.”

Kaufmann will be lightly amplified, but the concept of “Doppelganger” still relies on a performer with his immense presence, Audi said. “You need a personality like this,” he added, “because he’s alone onstage, and this is all taking place inside his head.”

He won’t be entirely alone. Among the beds will be dancers, who play the parts of fellow soldiers, as well as actors playing hospital workers. And Schubert’s score will be joined by Mathis Nitschke’s original music — which joins the songs together, picking up the harmonic thread of one and transitioning to that of the next. (Deutsch also has a showcase in the form of an interlude pulled from a late Schubert piano sonata.)

All this is possible, Kaufmann said, because “Schwanengesang” isn’t really a cycle. “We’re allowed to do something different with it,” he added, in a collaborative process among friends. “That’s our privilege, that we can present our ideas in a new package.”


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