Financial Times, Sep. 25, 2023
Schubert: Der Doppelgänger, New York, Park Avenue Armory, ab 22.9.2023
Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch cast a spell in Doppelganger at New York’s Park Avenue Armory
Director Claus Guth brings dancers, actors and sound effects to his staging of Schubert songs

Sixty-two hospital beds surround a grand piano in the vast drill hall of New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Electronic whirring reverberates as the audience enters, punctuated by the sound of explosions that cause the inhabitants of the beds to thrash and turn. It’s not your standard lieder recital, despite the impeccable credentials of star tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch. Inspired by the military history of the venue, director Claus Guth has imagined Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song) from the perspective of a soldier on his deathbed, in a production titled Doppelganger. Guth points out that Schubert never imagined these songs as a cycle — they were published as such after the composer’s death as a marketing strategy. Schubert’s music is presented intact, though the order of the songs has been lightly rearranged to fit the director’s narrative conceit. The question with staged song cycles is whether the performance would have been better off with just voice and piano, and indeed there were times where Guth’s staging feels overly fussy. Rose petals fall from the ceiling as Kaufmann sings about flowers, and the ominous shadow of a warplane precedes a loud explosion. There are also moments of great catharsis: Schubert’s murmuring brook becomes an intravenous drip, affording Kaufmann’s tormented soldier a rare moment of repose. In a remarkable theatrical coup, the back wall of the Armory opens and Kaufmann disappears into Manhattan traffic, returning with a ghostly double that lends Schubert’s song “Der Doppelgänger” (and the performance) its title. Schubert’s songs are interspersed with compositions by Mathis Nitschke, whose evocative soundscapes suggest both the hospital room and the battlefield. Dancers, portraying nurses and soldiers, contribute to Nitschke’s sound-world, beating their hospital beds in triplet rhythms as Deutsch repeats fragments of Schubert’s songs in an obsessive, hallucinatory loop. It’s the most interesting part of Guth’s vision, allowing him to shape the silences between the songs and keeping the audience in a state of heightened anticipation — a refreshing change from the usual coughing and rustling of programmes in a standard lieder recital. Hospital beds are arranged in neat rows; at the head of each row stands a nurse wearing an old-fashioned uniform; each nurse has an outstretched hand holding a drip mounted on a stand ‘Doppelganger’ is inspired by the military history of the venue © Monika Rittershaus Kaufmann, absent from New York stages for two years, is on fine form. Some tightness in his upper register aside, his burnished tenor remains potent, unleashing powerful torrents of sound. The unobtrusive amplification allows him some daringly soft singing that occasionally ventures into crooning, though his diction remains admirably clear throughout. Kaufmann’s fastidiously finessed singing has been accused of self-consciousness, but Guth’s staging brings out a welcome spontaneity. The most effective moment of the evening, though, is Deutsch’s interpolation of the slow movement from Schubert’s last piano sonata — with the lights dimmed and the cast sitting in silence, sometimes simplicity makes for the best theatre.

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