New York Classical Review, Sep 23, 2023
By David Wright
Schubert: Der Doppelgänger, New York, Park Avenue Armory, ab 22.9.2023
Kaufmann meets Schubert, dancers and electronics in a theatrical “Doppelganger”
In Romantic-era literature. the appearance of one’s doppelganger was a portent of death. On a lonely road or in a crowded room, a man comes face to face with his own exact double, a sign that his soul soon will leave his body and go its own way.

In 1828 Franz Schubert, 31 years old and terminally ill, composed the last dozen or so of his 600-plus songs in death’s shadow. For later listeners, the knowledge of that can give even the bounciest and most insouciant of these songs, such as “Abschied,” an ironic twist.

Others, however, such as “Der Doppelgänger,” stare into the void with naked horror and anguish.

A publisher issued these songs posthumously, appending the title Schwanengesang (Swan Song), in the manner of Schubert’s great song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. A performance of this bundle of songsby tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch formed the core of the impressive theater piece Doppelganger, conceived and directed by Claus Guth, which had its world premiere Friday night at the Park Avenue Armory.

Here the disorder of a cycle that was not a cycle matched the randomness of a young man’s thoughts as he faced death. But instead of a composer at his piano, Friday’s young man was a soldier in a World War I military hospital, tossing in his bed as he and others relived their battle experiences and the joys and sorrows of their civilian lives.

The vast expanse of the Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall was filled with 62 white beds in neat rows, some occupied by restless figures as the audience filtered in, with the search for seat numbers in the dim light adding a feeling of disorientation before the show even began. From time to time, six nurses walked in formation between the rows of beds.

Through all this, pianist Deutsch sat at his lidless piano in the center of the room, until a bell (a traditional marker of death) rang and the performance began. Tenor Kaufmann stole in amid a group of patients, and as they took to their beds he emitted an anguished cry, then began the song “Kriegers Ahnung” (Warrior’s Foreboding).

In notes in the printed program, director Guth noted that a lieder recital is a more modern mode of expression then Wagnerian opera, comparing it to the glimpses of emotion offered in a pop album, with its “carefully designed dramatic meaning that arose from the precise sequence of individual songs.”

Translating the “meaning” suggested by Schwanengesang into stage action, Guth and movement director Sommer Ulrickson had the agile troupe of nurses and soldiers enacting both realistic hospital scenes (complete with medication carts and IV bottles) and flights of fancy or fear, most memorably in an ecstatic commotion of sliding beds and fluttering sheets during the animated song “Frühlingssehnsucht” (Spring Longing).

Guth’s conception had a sound component as well. Schubert’s songs moved in and out of electronic connecting music by Mathis Nitschke, beginning with deep rumbles and distant thunder as the audience assembled, and setting subsequent moods with queasy, tinnitus-like whines or shocking explosions.

Whether moving through the scene, lying on the floor (for the famous “Ständchen”), or carried cortège-style on a bed by the dancers, Kaufmann was in splendid, albeit amplified voice, from gossamer pianissimo to full-bodied fortissimo, as he probed the poetic subtext of every phrase. Sound designer Mark Grey created the illusion of intimate discourse in the vast space, the singer’s voice even seeming to follow him around the room. As expected, the celebrated tenor’s star power not only packed the house, but carried the performance.

Pianist Deutsch’s always fluent and characterful playing of Schubert seemed more manipulated electronically, by turns vividly present, watery, or distant. He also participated in Nitschke’s linking music, extending a Schubert riff here, adding a tone cluster or inside-the-piano glissando there, always to strong dramatic effect.

While the cast sat on their beds and listened, Deutsch supplied a mesmerizing piano interlude, the Andante sostenuto from Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, at the turning point of Schwanengesang, where texts by the Romantic poet Ludwig Rellstab give way to the more ironic Heinrich Heine. This gentle funeral march, with bells tolling in the piano’s lower and upper registers, seemed a little overlong, an intrusion of Schubert’s “heavenly length” on an evening of concise gems, and yet to shorten it would have been unthinkable.

Urs Schönebaum’s lighting participated actively in the drama, making each individual bed glow in the darkness, throwing rectangles of white light around the room, creating dark spaces for terrified soldiers to cower in, and much more.

Video designer rocafilm projected storms of hallucinatory visual confetti that bathed the scene at moments of high emotion.

The realistic yet abstract white metal-frame beds and soldiers’ and nurses’ uniforms, courtesy of set designer Michael Levine and costume designer Constance Hoffman, were just right for this piece of psychological theater.

As Guth recognized, the arc of Schwanengesang came to rest on “Der Doppelgänger.” (An additional song, “Die Taubenpost,” not connected to the others and thrown in by the original publisher for good measure, was omitted from this production.) As Kaufmann walked slowly into a harsh horizontal light, he was joined by his silent, shadowy double as he closed the performance on that stark note of self-recognition, possibly from beyond the grave.

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