Winterreise is Angelin Preljocaj’s latest creation, danced to the complete Schubert cycle of Lieder. I stand by my arguments that a large theatre like La Scala is not the right theatre for a piece with just 13 dancers and two musicians, but let’s leave that aside — Winterreise is a beautifully crafted gem of dance theatre. It is intriguing, it draws you in, and it grips from beginning to end.
Certainly, this music is not Vivaldi or Bach, even at their most dramatic. Winterreise is almost constantly dark and sombre, with such insistent melancholy for its entire 80 minutes that it is surely taxing for someone not used to the art song repertoire. The ‘winter journey’ comprises 24 songs which describe a wanderer trudging through snow with tears freezing on his cheek, the river he passes is silent as it rushes trapped beneath the ice, his hair turns grey with frost, he passes a graveyard noting that there is no room left for him… and so on. Occasionally something reminds him of happier times, but the mood soon reverts back.
Bass-baritone Thomas Tatzl sang the taxing sequence almost every night for a week, accompanied sensitively by James Vaughan. He is on stage for a few moments, but for the most part in the semi-raised orchestra pit. Preljocaj illustrates the words — by the German poet Wilhelm Müller, available in translation as subtitles— sometimes literally, such as fans being waved to create wind when singing about a weathervane, or three stylised spheres descending when the wanderer sees three suns in the sky (the sun dog meteorological phenomenon), though often the choreography simply mirrors the mood of a song.
Preljocaj moves his dancers in Constance Guisset’s essential but effective sets, with Eric Soyer’s detailed and dramatic lighting, often as six couples, but also in many other formations and in mesmerising ways. There was not one moment when his choreography went against the music, but instead it added a rich visual layer to an already dense aural work. White snow falls on what might be earth, or maybe ashes; black confetti which throughout the dancers roll in and move across. Suffering is akin to pleasure in this landscape.
The black costumes, the all-black set and the black floor create an oppressive atmosphere – six of the female dancers even emerge from under the ‘earth’ at the opening. At the halfway point, after more than half-an-hour of black, the backcloth rises revealing blindingly white panels as Die Post (The Post) gives the wanderer some hope: “Why does my heart leap up so?” The 12 dancers each have a white piece of paper, a letter, which is used to make sounds as well as shapes.
Preljocaj uses his small group of dancers so well that with the quick, sometimes minimal, changes of costumes — costumes designed by Preljocaj — there is a continual flow that defies the spectator to define how many there are on stage. La Scala’s dancers have evidently worked intensely on all aspects of the piece from interpretation to the perfect, disciplined coordination; there were no weak links (they are all listed at the foot of the page).
So, what to pick out from these 24 exquisite dance vignettes?
Rückblick (Backwards Glance) saw four wonderful dancers — Christian Fagetti, Marco Agostino, Marco Messina and Agnese Di Clemente — in a sensuous, longing, tender section that was especially moving and memorable. Messina was again excellent with the always noteworthy and personable Alessandra Vassallo in Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree), a piece that starts by them whipping up the black ash with their fast-moving châiné turns and gives Vassallo opportunities to show off her impressively deep cambré.
Several times the always compelling Fagetti dances with the young, promising Andrea Risso in pieces that were technically challenging and bold. Risso is paired with Vassallo at the beginning of the enthralling last Lied, Der Leiermann (The Organ Grinder), she now dressed in white, he in black, to the most haunting and cruelly inevitable of themes depicting the old organ grinder that no one listens to, that no one salutes, and who has dogs growling at his feet. Coloured elements that have appeared on stage are now eradicated, black has returned, and the men lower themselves into the darkness of the stage floor as the women in white solemnly scatter earth on their bodies.
Preljocaj’s choreography is demanding and requires synchronisation and precision – it would be noticed if something was mistimed or went wrong. The lack of knowing if something is ‘right’ or not personally turns me off. Everyone can hear when the tenor misses his top note even if the aria is being heard for the first time. With atonal music or ‘lazy’ choreography, where it can seem that everyone is doing their own thing, you say to yourself, “Well probably, that was what was intended,” but you don’t know. Not that such pieces can’t be effective, but I’d go for John Adams over John Cage anytime. Preljocaj’s choreography is sublimely melodic.
Winterreise by Angelin Preljocaj
Antonella Albano, Alessandra Vassallo, Stefania Ballone, Chiara Fiandra, Agnese Di Clemente, Giulia Lunardi, Benedetta Montefiore, Marco Agostino, Christian Fagetti, Matteo Gavazzi, Marco Messina, Eugenio Lepera and Andrea Risso.
Some tickets are left for specially priced performances on 8 and 9 March 2019
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.