Franz Schubert was dying. Syphilis had consumed his body, the toxic mercury-laden unguents and vapours commonly prescribed as a last desperate treatment in the Romantic Age progressively poisoning him. Madness, doctors predicted, was inevitable.
Theories abound as to when, where and from whom Schubert contracted the disease that was to strike him down with unforeseen if ultimately merciful swiftness at the age of 31. Prostitutes, male and female, factor prominently in various Vienna-based scenarios all driven, for the most part in the view of contemporary historians, by the composer’s extreme lifelong introversion. Little inclined to intimate diaries or correspondence, Schubert spoke of his deepest feelings almost exclusively through his music, seldom confiding to those around him. When in 1827 he first sang and played what would become his last complete cycle of art songs, a harrowing journey to the core of human suffering and pain, the small circle of friends in attendance was shocked by the depth of the despair.
Almost 200 years later, Winterreise still has the power to tear at the heart.
Launching its inaugural concert presentation since formally founded in May of this year, the newest member of Toronto’s bustling indie opera community, Tongue in Cheek Productions, boldly proclaimed its ambitions last Wednesday with a potent presentation of Schubert’s turbulent masterwork. Assigning a single discrete selection to each of 24 Canadian baritones and basses, all appearing at various stages in their careers, fellow singers and co-founders Michael Nyby and Aaron Durand have essentially transposed Winterreise from solo virtuoso piece to that of a far broader, more openly inclusive collaboration. The results, glowingly on show at the Lula Lounge, a popular West end venue, brought a savvy sold-out audience to its feet, lieder streaming from the low spotlit stage in intense, compact bursts of energy, stylings ranging from the searingly operatic to the frank and the folky. Genre-bending, even ground-breaking, the evening entranced.
Loosely narrative in structure, Winterreise (Winter Journey), text by poet Wilhelm Müller, recounts an unsettling tale. A troubled young man— abandoned or abandoner, the milieu is less than manifest — departs his lover’s home fleeing into the snow. Haunted by memory, tortured by regret, the shadowy narrator roams a frozen landscape, aimless and tormented. No epiphany awaits him. No solace. No redemption. Only the bitter realization that he is forever deeply alone.
Shouldering the crushing weight of Schubert’s existential tragedy is no faint task for any number of artists, past or present, but Nyby, Durand and company dispatched the challenge with admirable grace. The humidex on Dundas West may have been nudging 40 degrees, but this Winterreise was a picture of cool, collective resolve.
First in order of appearance to particularly impress — an agonizing decision given such a rich program — Justin Welsh with a fine, meticulously gauged rendition of Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane). The song, an overtly allegorical treatise on inconstancy, nature-themed like so many of Schubert’s tone paintings, spins and blusters, unexpectedly faltering before resuming momentum. Welsh, poised and unflappable, tracked the wild swings in rhythm and pitch with breezy confidence.
Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) set in E major, one of the very few pieces in Winterreise not rooted in a minor key, more than justified its reputation as a perennial crowd pleaser. What begins in gentle reverie — a remembrance of So manches liebe Wort (“Many a word of love”) carved into its bark — is suddenly shattered by a bitter blast of icy wind. Luxuriously sung by Dylan Wright, the inexpressibly poignant plaint cast a lingering spell.
Dion Mazerolle, wistful and impassioned in equal turn, rendered the exquisitely long flowing lines of Wasserflut (Flood Water) with heartrending legato. The narrator’s tears melt the snow, drowning him in sorrow. Resonant and unconstrained, Mazerolle moulded metaphor into emotion, vibrantly mirroring the implied hyper-drama.
Cairan Ryan’s Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring) a virtual catalogue of gothic imagery — rustling dead leaves, darkness, shrieking ravens — bewitched the imagination. Ihr lacht wohl über den Träumer/Der Blumen im Winter sah? (“I suppose you‘ll laugh at the dreamer/Who saw flowers in winter?”), sang Ryan with touching introspection, floating the sweetly ironic melody on a bed of blossoming high notes.
Accompanying himself on guitar, a barefoot Doug MacNaughton delivered the surprise of the evening, a lucid dramatization of Schubert’s starkly bereft Einsamkeit (Solitude), singing actor in the role of wandering troubadour on an endless journey down a desolate road.
Returning after intermission, Die Post (The Post) featuring Keith Lam provided a measure of sardonic humour, boisterous, positively playful by Schubertian standards.
Giles Tomkins’ Der greise Kopf (The Old Man’s Head) followed. Spying his frosty white hair, the narrator is gladdened by the illusion of old age. But the end of life, however desperately desired, is not so easily invoked. Bald ist er hinweggetaut (“Soon it melted away”), Tomkins sang, the silence between the notes eloquent and terrifying. Stillness as counterpoint.
Was vermeid ich denn die Wege,/Wo die andern Wandrer gehn? (“Why then do I avoid the highways/Where the other travelers go?”) Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) poses an essential question, one of many in Winterreise that yields no real answer. To be irrational is to be human, Schubert tells us. Investing the piece with great physicality, Johnathon Kirby, gave graphic form to the conceit, prowling the stage, broody and glowering.
With its shunning of religion, the Christian Trinity obliquely yet tartly referenced, Die Nebensonnen (The False Suns), movingly sung by Michael Robert Broder, sounded a hymn-like note, an anthem to hopelessness. God provides no comfort, faith no refuge in Winterreise.
The last offering of the evening, Der Leirmann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) brings us to the very edge of being. Death appears in the form of a ragged organ grinder playing an eerie tune, insistent and beckoning. “Strange old man,” muses the narrator. “Shall I go with you?” Wunderlicher Alter!/Soll ich mit dir gehn? Distilling an eternity of sadness into his soulful, focused phrasing, Jason Howard gave voice to the darkness, pianist Trevor Chartrand ending Schubert’s long winter journey on a final, infinitely gentle cadence.
The conversation between singer and piano, supportive and confidential at times, frequently erupting into outright argument, is central to the sheer unrestrained emotive power of Winterreise. Melody and rhythm promote harmony and colour and conversely. Voice and keyboard are more than equal partners here. They are utterly symbiotic. If the quality of singing in this supercharged rendition of Schubert’s shattering opus was overwhelmingly applaudable it was, in no small measure, due to Chartrand’s generosity of spirit and brilliance. This was a performance of supreme sensitivity and inexhaustible strength.
Music beyond here and now. A Winterreise for all seasons. Tongue in Cheek Productions amply earned its standing ovation.