Death in Peter Brook’s elusive, essential production of “The Suit,” which closes this weekend at UCLA, is not losing your balance. Falling and picking yourself up again means you can keep going. Brook vividly underscores that in the new documentary about his rehearsal process, “The Tightrope.”
Schubert’s songs are the key. Unlike the other music in “The Suit” -- African, blues, a Strauss waltz, Bach -- Schubert never interrupts, never stops the action, never accompanies, never even colors. These songs simply flow like an inescapable current. It doesn’t matter what instruments they are played on or how they are arranged. They are the tightrope.
Schubert’s intimacy with Death, as a persona, happens to be in the zeitgeist. It was motivation for David Lang’s “death speaks,” performed in a Los Angeles Philharmonic Minimalist Jukebox program last week. Schubert’s intriguing references to Death as a character in his songs inspired Lang to write his own music to what Death speaks, a music that strays very close to an elegantly unbending melodic line. Every time that line widens, a hint of hope is glimpsed. This is Death's perfumed vision of beauty.
Death does not speak directly in Schubert's “Winterreise” (Winter’s Journey), which Thomas Mann called the most beautiful song cycle in the world. He was hardly alone in thinking that Schubert's two dozen songs that follow a jilted lover on his snowy, depressed wanderings toward suicide reveal ineffable wonders.
In a great live 1979 performance by baritone Dietrich-Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Alfred Brendel released last year on DVD, the singer never moves a foot for more than an hour. He never falls from the tightrope. All expression is in his eyes, his mouth, his body language and, of course, his perfectly balanced, exacting singing. Death is in control, and Brendel never trips him. It is a perfect Peter Brook performance. The DVD includes a rehearsal of the two musicians, and it forms an ideal complement to “The Tightrope.”
It also explains why a new recording of “Winterreise” that is getting a great deal of attention is a failure. Schubert's songs are outstandingly sung by popular German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, whose eloquent Wagner opera performances in particular have made him a major star. But here every song is turned into such sloppily expressive theater that the tightrope hardly exists.
Pianist Helmut Deutsch, who is Kaufmann’s longtime coach, may be the problem. From the opening accompaniment, he adamantly points out this and that. For Brook, Dieskau and Lang, Death is understood as that which makes life possible, and the journeys they take, guided by Schubert, are so moving because they look beyond the ego.
In Brook’s “The Suit,” Schubert is like electricity. It does not need to be seen or understood to be felt. This show is not to be missed.