Ever since Brigitte Fassbaender and Christa Ludwig demonstrated what a woman’s voice and passion could bring to Schubert’s wintry journey, the menfolk have  thrown wide the doors of this greatest of song cycles to the opposite sex. Written in the first person and ostensibly masculine, Winterreise presents a choice and a challenge for a woman. Are you the Lieder equivalent of an operatic trouser role? Are you somehow outside of the action? Or are you, more interestingly, a woman? In our more genderfluid times, the field seems more open than ever, but for their Carnegie Hall recital, Joyce DiDonato and Yannick Nézet-Séguin adopted an original and intriguing approach.

Joyce DiDonato and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo © Chris Lee

Who is the lady referred to in Wilhelm Müller’s poems? She spoke of love, we are told, and she’s likely of the respectable middle class. Ultimately, though, we learn little about the woman who precipitated our protagonist’s departure from a town that was hers, not his, and launched him on this trek through this bleakest of winter landscapes. But what if, as DiDonato predicates, “he sent me his journal in the post…”? Clad in sober, Victorian black, and seated at times at a small table, DiDonato proceeded to “read” from a leather-bound book, taking us not just on his journey, but simultaneously on hers.

Singer and pianist are adventurous colleagues. As Carnegie Perspectives artists they have been granted sufficient creative leeway to explore ideas such as this. According to the program note it was Nézet-Séguin who proposed Winterreise, but the novel concept arose from the singer’s initial difficulty finding her way into the protagonist’s world and a nagging sense that an answer lay in her experience of playing Massenet’s Charlotte, a woman who faces a future endlessly re-reading the letters bequeathed to her by the late, lamented Werther.

To a large extent this worked magnificently. DiDonato is a natural stage animal and playing the cycle as an extended dramatic monologue allowed her to claim the text as if she was encountering it for the very first time. Moving from chair to piano and back again, she prowled the space clutching the journal and flicking feverishly through its pages. There were times when she might have “read” less – the convention was sufficiently established early on to allow more dramatic licence – but on the whole it made for a convincing and theatrically compelling experience. This was a grandly operatic interpretation, two steps removed from the Lieder singer’s physically restrained performance, but there was no questioning its validity, nor the commitment of the two artists who led us through Schubert’s harrowing work with a dramatic sureness of step and flawless musical integrity.

Joyce DiDonato. Photo © Chris Lee

If there was a caveat to this dramatic conception of the cycle it lay in an attenuation of the range of first-hand emotions on offer. Whereas a male first-person protagonist gets to run the gamut of weariness, despair, bitterness, anger, terror, sorrow, irony (a crucial one, this), and an increasingly unhinged mind, for a woman to simply receive this information offers a more limited scope. Surprise, shock, concern, horror, DiDonato played them all to the hilt, but there were certain corners that by necessity remained not fully explored.

That said, DiDonato certainly went for it, her rich mezzo ranging widely, the voice flexible and comfortable, and rising to bold fortissimos in songs like Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) and Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning). Occasionally, as at the end of Die Krähe (the Crow) or the heartfelt cries of “mein herz” in Die Post (The Post) there was a slight lack of body at the top, but that is pure nit-picking. She proved equally adept at reining it in to deliver a thrillingly hushed piano in more reflective songs like Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) or Das Wirtshaus (The Inn). Her unruffled legato singing was intensely beautiful throughout. Needless to say, the great singing actress came to the fore in a concentrated and faultless attention to text, every word mined for its full potential and delivered with crisp articulation.

For someone mostly to be found on the podium these days, Nézet-Séguin was a revelation. His too was a vivid interpretation, at times thunderingly so (though never drowning the singer), but he was also capable of an abundant tenderness and bringing enormous imagination to certain songs and passages. With voice and piano in perfect synthesis, the latter drew out numerous and seemingly unique nuances in the accompaniment to familiar songs like Der Lindenbaum. Best of all, he strung the numbers together as a seamless sequence with an unerring sense of pace and dramatic through line, his choices to pause or push on heightening our involvement in the peaks and troughs of DiDonato’s emotional trajectory.

Joyce DiDonato and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo © Chris Lee

And what a journey it was. From the gradual dawning of what had occurred to her awakening horror at the snow-covered road in the opening Gute Nacht, the singer set the emotional bar high. Her mounting awareness of her correspondent’s emotional instability was astutely offset by the moral propriety expected of a woman of her time as she wrestled with a world where romance can seduce and destroy as effortlessly as the moon can throw its ambiguous shadow on an icy road. Suitably appalled in Die Wetterfahne that this man might believe she had set her heart on a rich marriage, the pain reflected in Geforne Tränen (Frozen Tears) found her digging down deep into her emotional reserves. The delicate portamento tipping her into the grave at the end of Irrlicht (Will-o-the-Wisp); the micro-drama with the grumbling dogs as the nocturnal traveller passes through in Im Dorfe (The Village); and the numbed inevitability of Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) were powerful moments indeed.

The final four songs were as formidable as I’ve ever encountered them. Das Wirtshaus was a masterclass in legato singing while conveying a palpable sense that this woman might choose to follow her lover into a frozen oblivion. The subsequent Mut (Courage) became about her strength of purpose as much as his. The deceptive orbs of Die Nebensonnen (The Phantom Suns) gave her pause for thought – can his journey ever be hers? Finally, the wide-eyed emptiness of Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) found her letting go her grip on the fatal journal as she was drawn inexorably into that lonely death on the bare ice. While DiDonato fought back tears in the curtain call, the house afforded them a well-deserved ovation, a testament to a masterpiece that, in the best tradition of masterpieces, proved once again how responsive it is to artists with brave new ideas.

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