Opéra Comique 2023-24 Review: Winterreise

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo: DR Rideau de fer)

In theory, few programs are more proper for a Valentine’s Day that falls on Ash Wednesday than “Winterreise” in Opéra Comique. The romantic idealism of Valentine’s Day blends well with the bitter aftermath of carnival when all pleasures must be delayed for Lent. After a long run singing a scenic and orchestral version of Schubert’s masterpiece, baryton Stephane Degout combines forces with pianist Alain Planès for a one-night recital. To add to the night’s idiosyncrasies, they used a Pleyel 1837 piano instead of a modern instrument. Thus they joined the current fashion of “historically informed” Schubert.

The recital, though sympathetic, had very few great moments. Pianist Planès made more than a few crass mistakes. From messing up the first descending scale in “Gute Nacht” to an uninspired introduction to “Die Post” and a most tiresome “Der Leiermann,” it was evident that he was not having his best day. Still, any “Winterreise” is better than keine “Winterreise.”

The historic piano had its charm. Perhaps gifted with a less colorful palette of dynamics, the old Pleyel can be very expressive—especially through its sonority, which is full of edges. Some chords are more painful to hear than usual, and the harmonics are more conspicuous. I must say that I had a less good time with it than some of my friends did, but I am glad that I heard it.

One outcome of Planès difficult night was Degout’s refractory singing, which was especially striking given that we are dealing with a singer who had spent the previous two weeks singing an orchestral adaptation of the song cycle. His voice is still remarkable, and his German is so clear that dogs can transcribe it; however, there was much hesitation in his throat, so he often played safe, with very little musical urgency or dynamic variation. Part of blame lies with Planès’s inconsistent entries, but it did not help that after singing the cycle by heart, Degout seemed unable to take his eyes from the score all evening.

It was interesting that the most expressive moments of the night were precisely when Degout was less dependent on Planès. At the endings of many songs, especially in the textual repetitions, it was noticeable that the baryton’s voice got less constricted, and his phrasing and legato gained a lot of expressiveness. Some moments were particularly beautiful. The final stanza of “Letzte Hoffnung,” for example, had a particularly romantic affectation that reminded me why Degout is a more than solid singer.

Progressively, given the stagnated tempi and the lack of expressiveness in many phrases in the text, it was a noticeable relief to hear the first notes of “Der Leiermannn.” The final song, always eerie by its metaphorical reference to mechanical singing, sounded more mechanical than usual. Yet the piano was somewhere else; the singer sang all the words properly, but sans panache, lifeless as the recital itself. Usually, this mechanic sonority works in the end of the recital, but this was not the case.

Reaction to the recital was ambiguous. Half of the audience was, as usual, extremely pleased, and clapped a lot. The man next to me could not have left the theater more quickly. His agony was such that he already had his cigarette and lighter in hand by the middle of the recital. Certainly not the most helpful concert neighbor, but I shared his feelings, at least to a degree.

Still, as I said, any “Winterreise” is still better than no “Winterreise.” The acoustics of Opéra Comique are extremely good for the voice and the piano. For first-time goers, the concert was pleasant—perhaps that is what matters. A friend commented on how he enjoyed listening to Schubert for the first time. The song-cycle had a sense of narrative that was very new to him and, in the following day, he listened to several recordings of “Winterreise” (Fassbaender to Sly). To me, it was the performance of two accomplished musicians who, for reasons that cannot be explained, found themselves ungraced by the muse on this specific night. It happens even with the great.


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