Audiences wanting to hear Schwanengesang ordinarily would visit a concert hall presenting a baritone and his pianist performing on a bare stage. However, the eager hundreds who stormed the Park Avenue Armory on Friday night instead witnessed the lavish world premiere of Doppelgänger, a visually striking, intermittently gripping theater piece starring Jonas Kaufmann, probably the world’s most famous tenor, singing fourteen songs by Franz Schubert.
Pierre Audi, the Armory’s Marina Kellen French Artistic Director, gave carte blanche to Kaufmann and Claus Guth, a noted opera director, to create a work for the enormous Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Guth, long fascinated by the unexplored theatrical potential of the classical song repertoire, especially German lieder, selected Schubert’s Swan Song, a collection published after the composer’s tragically early death at 31. Guth set himself a difficult challenge as Schwanengesang, unlike Schubert’s better-known Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin, does not consist of interrelated songs.
Inspired by the Armory’s military past, Guth conjured a compelling scenario in which Kaufmann embodied an injured soldier reliving consequential episodes of his life during the moments just before his death. That feverish drama was already in progress when audiences entering the darkened Drill Hall were confronted by Michael Levine’s stunning stark set of sixty-two meticulously arrayed hospital beds. As we climbed vertiginous steps to our bleacher seats, Mathis Nitschke’s clangorous incidental music regularly disturbed the twenty-odd soldier-patients causing them to toss and turn on their cots while six nurses made their rounds.” Constance Hoffman’s austere costumes evoked World War I rather than the late 1820s when the songs were composed.
After a bell rang, Kaufmann’s superb partner Helmut Deutsch, seated at the piano set at the absolute center of the beds, started to play, rousing the previously anonymous superstar tenor whose first song “Kriegers Ahnung” began with the lines “In deep repose my comrades in arms/lie in a circle around me.” Throughout Doppelgänger, Kaufmann and Guth played with the songs’ usual order, though they kept together the poems by Ludwig Rellstab, followed by the six Heinrich Heine songs. The original publisher tacked Schubert’s final song, “Die Taubenpost,” onto the end of the collection, but it was dropped entirely from Doppelgänger so that the performance appropriately ended with the haunting “Der Doppelgänger,” in which a man is chagrined to encounter his double—an occurrence that traditionally presages death.
The first half of Doppelgänger began chaotically as a frantic Kaufmann raced about the cots encountering or evading his fellow soldiers. A welcome respite arrived as they shoved aside several of the beds allowing Kaufmann to lay down to serenade his absent beloved with the heavenly “Ständchen,” one of Schubert’s most famous melodies that’s been transcribed and adapted for many different voices and instruments.
After saying goodbye to Rellstab with “Abschied,” Kaufmann rested while Deutsch exquisitely played the mournful second movement from Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21. His quiet eloquence after so much frenetic movement (conceived by Sommer Ulrickson) led the production to a fiercer focus with the Heine settings. For “Am Meer,” a funeral procession formed when six soldiers carried Kaufmann on one of the beds; after which, in a startling coup de théâtre, the mechanical door at the extreme side of the theater slowly rose to reveal a blinding light and the busy street beyond. Kaufmann slowly walked toward it before disappearing. During the final song, a figure returned followed by Kaufmann: the inevitable encounter with the Doppelgänger who brought death at last to the nameless soldier.
This riveting final sequence delivered a narrative coherence that earlier sections of Doppelgänger lacked, though Guth’s tableaux were often breathtakingly vivid. Schubert’s own stage works failed during his lifetime, and though they are still occasionally revived, none has been deemed truly stage-worthy. Therefore, it’s not surprising that directors and singers have collaborated on staged versions of Winterreise and Schöne Müllerin, but the songs of Schwanengesang lack a thematic connection, and so several of Guth’s dramatizations felt random, despite the always magical lighting design of Urs Schönebaum.
Absent from the Metropolitan Opera since 2017 and prone to worrisome cancellations over recent months, Kaufmann returned in fine voice. He has long been an avid recitalist, not a common phenomenon among opera stars. Schwanengesang has traditionally been embraced mostly by baritones from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey and Thomas Quasthoff to Christian Gerhaher and Matthias Goerne, but Kaufmann’s dark lower register sounded at ease in Schubert’s music, while his finely gauged dynamics from bold fortes to aching pianos were much in evidence though the needed amplification inevitably interfered.
Kaufmann darted all around Levine’s enormously wide stage, but no matter where you were sitting, his voice sounded the same. Though overall the amplification was decently managed, listeners only got an inkling of the “real” Kaufmann when he was singing directly in front of them.
The tenor has long been an earnest and effective actor on the opera stage, and his tirelessly energetic embrace of Guth’s rigorous physical challenges was admirable. A more electric singing actor might make Doppelgänger a more wrenching experience, though an alternate might sing it with less polish and touching nuance than Kaufmann. One wonders, however, whether this expensive site-specific project could be revived elsewhere after its five shows at the Armory.
While joining the ovation for the evening’s raison d’être after Doppelganger’s premiere, my mind wandered to Kaufmann’s most recent foray into popular music: a 22-track Sony Classics CD released earlier this month called The Sound of Movies. Accompanied by swooningly lush Hollywood-style arrangements, Kaufmann uncomfortably croons his way through a puzzling mix of Broadway standards like “Edelweiss” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to “Strangers in the Night” and “Moon River” to little-known film themes from Gladiator and The Deer Hunter.
Sales of Kaufmann’s opulent Christmas collection from several years ago must have encouraged this misguided follow-up, but I’d rather remember his revelatory recording from earlier this year of Puccini’s Turandot opposite Sondra Radvanovsky.
While Kaufmann’s absence from the Met seems likely to continue, Peter Gelb has lots of plans for Guth, who was making his long-awaited NYC debut with Doppelgänger. Next season, Lincoln Center should see his Salome and Semele while, according to the New York Times, Jenufa will arrive in several years.
Two shows remaining: Wednesday, September 27 and Thursday, September 28 at 7:30 p.m.