Franz Schubert's "Winterreise," a cycle of 24 songs to poetry by Wilhelm Muller, won't fit everyone's idea of an opera. There's one singer, one piano and no story arc, unless maybe you analyze the nuances of the verse. But Kevin Patterson, Anchorage Opera's executive director, explained that the company's "monodrama" presentation this week was intended to expand how we define the art.
The poems follow the mental anguish of a heartbroken man as he wanders a wintery landscape after leaving his faithless lover. The bleak setting reflects his grim thoughts. His tears freeze in the snow; his feet ache from his destinationless journey; his eyes linger over leafless trees, ice and graveyards. But he can't get her out of his mind.
When you hear the first song in the cycle, "Gute Nacht," in which he departs his sweetie's house, leaving just a note on the gate, you think you are listening to the saddest piece of music ever written. But the gloom only deepens, song after gorgeous, heart-rending song. There are brief shifts in tempo and mode to suggest fleeting hope or tempestuous speed. But the emotional color of the thing is a more or less constant gray.
Entertainment is probably not the right word for this piece. But a transformative effect does take place in the final song, when the narrator sees a lonely, neglected organ-grinder and the music kicks the last gasp of hope out of the lovelorn man and leaves the rest of us looking at an existential black hole. Only a Schubert could get away with it.
But he needs performers to do it. The singer, baritone David Adam Moore, accompanied by pianist Richard Gordon, worked through what sounded like a case of sniffles on Wednesday, opening night, but nonetheless has an excellent voice, clear and smooth, alternately hard or lustrous, and happily on pitch. He didn't have much acting to do, mostly walking back and forth, sitting or standing, but his face could be grippingly expressive.
Moore's main move was to remove a hat, scarf and coat after coming on stage. In white pants and long-sleeved undershirt, he became part of the screen in the back of the stage on which different images were projected.
The projections, video by something called GLMMR (Moore is included in the cinematography credits), provided sometimes updated commentary on the poems with scenes of a gravel truck on a snow-filled road, blizzardy cities, frozen water, denuded trees, tombstones and so forth. A particularly effective scene showed carrion birds feasting on the ribs of a carcass. As Moore sang "Die Post," in which the character eagerly anticipates a letter from his girlfriend, which doesn't come, the movie showed cellphone messages, then the phone being shot with a pistol and bashed with a hammer.
It takes a certain commitment to absorb the 90 minute melding of words (sung in German with English translations projected above the stage) and evocative tone-smithing. The reward is distinctly felt, a deep and chilling understanding. The small audience at Wilda Marston Theater on Wednesday contained a larger-than-usual percentage of the city's most musically knowledgeable people.
Those looking for mere amusement may wish to forego "Winterreise" and stick to cable reality shows. But for the kind of person who finds a necessary interior fulfillment in mindful, well-executed art, Moore's "Winterreise" will be worth the money.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
"Winterreise" will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at Wilda Marston Theater at Loussac Library. It lasts 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at centertix.net.
By MIKE DUNHAM