For Samuel Beckett, it was never words and music, no matter that they were personified in his 1962 radio play, “Words and Music.” It was ever words are music.
Reputed to have been a fine musician himself, Beckett directed his plays as though he were conducting an orchestra. His recently published letters are peppered with shrewd and deliciously snarky remarks about performances he attended (what a music critic he would have made). He was a great writer as well as a great listener, and from time to time he created a character who was the listener. He famously called Schubert, whom he adored, “his friend in suffering.”
And so, Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the 20th century Irish writer and the early 19th century Viennese composer were brought together in their tsuris, the Yiddish word for a despair that is worth sharing. “Night and Dreams: A Schubert & Beckett Recital” was the first production by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new artist-collaborator, the director Yuval Sharon.
It was also a revelatory reinvention of the song recital for two extraordinary young American singers, Julia Bullock and Ryan McKinny, five actors including the consummate Beckettians Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, and two fine young pianists. Rather than having Schubert songs or short piano pieces set the stage for short theater works, or visa versa, Sharon bled Schubert’s music into Beckett, and Beckett right back into Schubert, as the singers and pianists became actors, and the actors conveyed text with hypnotic rhythmic alacrity.
In L.A., Sharon is best known as the founder of the industriously quixotic modern opera company the Industry, which made international news last year with “Hopscotch,” the opera staged around L.A. and witnessed by an audience riding in limousines. But elsewhere the 36-year-old Sharon is quickly becoming known as a director of imaginative stagings of more conventional works. In May he will mount a semi-staged production of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with the Cleveland Orchestra. This month he signed a contract to direct Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival, which could be his big breakthrough.
“Night and Dreams,” on the other hand, was Sharon’s first major production in L.A. using more traditional works. Still, it revealed his love for vehicles and surprising environments. Here, rather than limos, there were carts rolling across the stage, each with an evocative small set by John Iacovelli, made with such quintessential Beckett imagery as a small table for two, a mound of dirt and trash cans. For “That Time,” the most elaborate of the Beckett pieces, Sharon placed the actors in the empty seats behind the stage and organ loft with pinpoint lighting by Christopher Kuhl.
Sharon chose many of the best-known Schubert pieces, and he didn’t stretch too far with the Beckett either. But in the end, context was everything. That meant that Bullock could join actresses Bella Merlin and Priscilla Pointer as one of the amusing old ladies of Beckett’s “Come and Go,” each whispering something about another, and then launch into “Lachen und Weinen,” Schubert’s song about laughter being a lover’s defense against tears.
In the satirical “Catastrophe,” Mandell parodied a megalomaniacal director creating the ridiculously right pose for Ryan as the protagonist standing on a pedestal. Ryan then came to life as living tombstone singing “Totengräbers Heimweh,” Schubert’s ironic song about a gravedigger’s duty. “I stand alone,” he bewailed.
By so making Schubert and Beckett partners in tsuris, Sharon continually showed how composer and writer both sought out the laughter in tears and tears in laughter, and sometimes it was difficult to know whether to cry or chuckle. Either response at any time could be unsettlingly right and wrong.
The final magnificence was in the performances. The music, I think, inspired the actors. For instance, Mandell, who worked with Beckett for years, has a stage presence and an oracular vocal presence that encapsulates all the enigma in Beckett. But the enigma rises when, as in “That Time,” the pianists Richard Valitutto and Wenwen Du, play a floating riff on a Schubert Moment Musicaux.
Sharon did succumb to occasionally pushing the love-death angle overly hard. Leaning again a tree, Bullock brought more pathos than Eros to “Suleika I,” the most graphically sexual of all Schubert’s 600-plus songs, so that it could flow into “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” for which Bullock was the dying maiden and Ryan was a ghostly death.
But the mood Sharon was able to create was nonetheless alarmingly effective. Both signers rose to extraordinary theatrical heights in the interpretations. Ryan, the bass-baritone who recently sang the title role in the L.A. Phil’s staging of John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” was particularly impressive replacing tenor Ian Bostridge (who canceled for family reasons) with only 10 days’ notice.
Bullock closed “Night and Dreams” bringing stunning focus to Schubert’s song of that name, “Nacht und Traüme.” This is the kind of great Schubert singing that were I not to hear another song sung this year, it wouldn’t be a wasted year.
That so much care be given to a single performance is also what made it so special. (No, it wasn’t recorded and, no, they will not play Sam and Schubert again.) You have only one shot and it has to matter.
The care, moreover, was in every detail, including a sound design by Fred Vogler that for the first time in my experience in Disney made the amplified spoken voices and unamplified singing voices equal in conveying words and music.