In the classical tradition, a song often evokes intimacy and loneliness: a poet exposing vulnerability, a composer painting a miniature. That sense of isolation also extends to the performance: a singer and pianist alone on stage, a listener absorbing the work in an intimate concert hall or immersed alone with headphones.
These conventions surround the last group of songs written by Schubert, known as “Schwanengesang” (Swan Song) and published after the composer’s death in 1828 at the age of 31. But those expectations were turned around in “Doppelganger,” which had its world premiere on Friday at 1 p.m. the cavernous Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall. Director Claus Guth, star tenor Jonas Kaufmann, pianist Helmut Deutsch and a whole host of collaborators transformed ‘Schwanengesang’ into a complete war story during the Saturday evening performance.
Kaufmann is a soldier dying in a military hospital. Far from being alone with Deutsch on stage, he is one of nearly two dozen wounded and sick soldiers cared for by a fleet of six nurses; the rest of the cast consists of dancers. Deutsch and the piano are located right in the middle of the more than sixty hospital beds that stretch across the immense floor of the room. Kaufmann’s soldier spends the last hour of his life repeating his memories in a cascade of Schubert’s songs, stitched together with ominous new music by German composer Mathis Nitschke.
Guth’s imaginative and powerful staging for his New York debut is reminiscent of history. This drill hall served as a hospital and shelter; Originally intended for a fall 2020 premiere, “Doppelganger” also calls upon the field hospitals hastily built at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Michael Levine’s inventive and minimalist set design is dominated by the blanched shades of hospital white and khaki uniforms. The growl of Nitschke’s sound and Urs Schönebaum’s clever lighting suggest thunderstorms and bombings.
Does the theatrical conceit serve Schubert’s songs? In the hands of long-time collaborators Kaufmann and Deutsch, yes – and it revives the master’s music in a fresh, intelligent setting without sacrificing the duo’s artistry as classical performers.
At one point the piano becomes a main character in the drama, as Kaufmann and the dancers gather to briefly listen to Deutsch perform the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat major, D. 960. It was a rare treat to hear Deutsch, who usually plays an accompanist, literally taking center stage.
In a concession to the vast expanse of the armory, Kaufmann’s voice was slightly amplified. This was occasionally distracting when he turned his head away from the microphone, and his normally clear articulation was somewhat muddy. But Kaufmann’s sweet tone exceeded the limits of technology, especially in Schubert’s yearning song of desire ‘Ständchen’.
In the evening’s climactic song, “Der Doppelgänger,” Kaufmann’s soldier meets his ghostly twin brother at the moment of death. Although the audience knows this was coming because they had already seen the soldier mortally wounded, the theatrical ingenuity and visceral power of “Doppelganger” was so strong that the audience let out an audible gasp of shock. When was the last time you heard something like that in a classical concert hall?
Through Thursday at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.