A 21st Century arrangement
Franz Schubert: Winterreise 2020 (arr. F. De L’Etoile & S. Carrier)
Philippe Sly (bass-baritone)
Félix De L’Etoile (clarinet), Katrine Gordon (trombone), Samuel Carrier (accordion), Jonathan Milette (violin)
Roy Rallo (stage director), Doey Lüthi (designer)
P. Sly (Courtesy of the Royal Conservatory)
I have reviewed several performances where performers broke away from the conventional way of presenting a work. Examples include the choreographed Verdi Requiem from the Zurich Opera, the staged Handel’s Messiah in Toronto, a staged Mozart Requiem from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and a Così fan tutte from Paris in which the singers were all doubled by dancers.
And here we have Schubert’s Winterreise rather surprisingly performed during the Royal Conservatory’s sixth annual 21C Music Festival devoted to music of this century. The reason it appears in this context is thanks to an arrangement of the 190-year-old song cycle by Félix De L’Etoile and Samuel Carrier, two members of the Montreal group Le Chimera Project (not to be confused with the Toronto dance troupe called The Chimera Project). In 2017 the group of four instrumentalists (listed above), along with bass-baritone Philippe Sly and stage director Roy Rallo, devised a staging of the work. It was first performed that year at Québec’s Domaine Forget de Charlevoix and in 2019 a recording was issued on the Analekta label.
The question to be asked about any such approach is whether or not it adds to one’s enjoyment or understanding of a work or does it get in the way. Of the four examples cited above, I enjoyed the first three, not that I expect to see every requiem or oratorio staged. As for the Così fan tutte with choreography, I kept wishing the six dancers would disappear. Così is rife with psychological complexities and does not need an extra layer of action.
I’m afraid my opinion of Le Chimera Project’s Winterreise is similar to my opinion of the Paris Opera’s Così fan tutte. Here each of the 24 songs was given a different instrumental arrangement and thus a different staging; the group seems to have been eager to give each of the five performers equal time and equal fussy business. The dim lighting prevented me from making detailed notes, but here is one: in the 5th song, “Der Lindenbaum”, some lines are given to the tree; these were voiced by the trombonist, Karine Gordon. When the lyrics refer to the narrator’s thoughts, having another voice interject like this undercuts the essence of the work.
Director Roy Rallo’s clotted notes contain this sentence: “Often what is at the centre of any matter can be obscured and contorted by what it is dressed in”. This is exactly what happens in this arrangement. Replacing the piano with a sort of klezmer quartet “obscures and contorts” Schubert’s well-thought-out creation. In addition, Philippe Sly accompanies himself on the hurdy-gurdy in “Gute Nacht”, relocated from the beginning to the end of the cycle.
There were no texts provided either in the program or projected. What we got was a projection of each song’s title in English. This assumed a lot of detailed knowledge on the part of the audience; for example, the 21st song, “Das Wirtshaus”, was correctly translated as “The Inn”, but the title is actually referring to a graveyard. The poems are full of “information” like this that completely goes missing without knowledge of the text.
Moody lighting was provided by four light stands located on the stage. The performers (all “off book”) moved around a lot. Philippe Sly sang one song lying in a fetal position (I suppose the whole cycle could be sung this way). A pino sits mute in the cnetre of the action; it finally is played for the 21st song before being pushed to the side.
The saddest thing about the performance is that Philippe Sly, when not drowned out by either the clarinet or trombone, was revealed to have he voice and skill to deliver a rich and nuanced straightforward performance of the work.