A mill. A brook. A body.
A pretty, fickle daughter. A blithe wanderer. A hunter. Nixies. A broken heart. An atmosphere of underlying weirdness. A strophic soundtrack underscoring all that is inexplicable in wooded nature and adding a beat to its offbeat inhabitants.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that Schubert’s cycle of 20 songs, “Die Schöne Müllerin” (“The Lovely Miller Maid”), which was given a stellar and suitably theatrical performance by tenor Jonas Kaufmann on Monday night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, was the inspiration of “Twin Peaks.” But the similarities are telling.
This was the first great narrative song cycle. It strings together 20 settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller that tell the story of an impracticably ardent young fellow. His fancy for a Miller’s daughter becomes too great to bear when she falls for a macho hunter. The poet is both narrator and protagonist.
Somewhere along the evolutionary line of popular culture, a strain of “Schöne Müllerin” DNA managed to quietly transform not only into the roots of a revolutionary television series but even more pertinently into the invention of the concept album, such as The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club,” and that of the rock opera, beginning with The Who’s “Tommy.”
That doesn’t mean there is necessarily value in looking for Schubert scraps in these works. But when it comes to “Schöne Müllerin,” we have no choice but to attend with a contemporary sensibility, just as we look for ourselves in the ape, not ape remnants in us.
Kaufmann is the model modern opera star capable of balancing both worlds. His immense popularity is rightfully won. He has a movie star’s appearance, manner and charisma. His voice on the opera stage is powerful and clarion, but, as he also proved in the intimate Broad space, scalable down to infinitesimal size.
Words matter in Schubert’s songs, and each was intelligibly attended to. The German tenor telegraphed meaning vocally and through facial inflection. Emotion matters, and Kaufmann proved a fine storyteller and fine actor.
When our mooning protagonist leapt for unutterable joy at a sign of recognition from his love, his entire being filled with nothing but her, Kaufmann made us all leap. When he needed to descend to the depth of pathos, the maid lost, that stirring voice reduced to a microscopic fiber of a vocal chord, and all the world felt lost.
As narrator, Kaufmann could also stand back, undemonstratively describing a scene or precisely observing his characters in discerning song. Among the many brilliant aspects of Schubert’s music is the way it captures the weather without and within. Green, the maid’s favorite color, is wonderful or hateful, depending on the mood of her admirer. Kaufmann’s inflections captured all.
Yet for all his magnificence Monday, Kaufmann missed the one final element he needed to make his “Schöne Müllerin” a new way of hearing Schubert. He was an opera singer playing the role of a recitalist not a recitalist playing the role of Schubert’s song cycle.
He and his pianist Helmut Deutsch appeared in elegant white tie and tails. This may be standard concert dress, but on a small stage it creates an ambiance of antiquated formality. That can be overcome but not without a noticeable effort that introduces its level of dramatic artificiality. Kaufmann’s way was to appear a tenant of the opera stage looking to downsize.
Deutsch is a veteran Lieder accompanist, respectfully remaining in the background, not acting as an equal with whom the singer engages. That left the impression of the recital being neither entirely here nor there, whereas the continued relevance of Schubert’s cycle transcends tradition and reaches into the present.
A series of encores further helped and hurt. Other Schubert songs, notably “The Trout” at the end, served to diminish the tragic ending of “Schöne Müllerin.” Two inappropriate operetta arias by Lehar, though, had a more intriguing effect. The tails suddenly made sense. They showed Kaufmann’s meltingly suave side along with a touch of his stentorian operatic capability, which the audience devoured. More important, the arias were so callously apart from the pathos of Schubert’s earnest lad that they added telling perspective.
I began to wonder what the effect would have been if Kaufmann outrageously framed the cycle with these numbers, as if the song cycle were a flashback to a more tragically innocent time, rather the cynical look at love that is the hallmark Viennese decadence in operetta. As for encores, what about then adding “She’s Leaving Home” from “Sgt. Pepper” and “Amazing Journey” from “Tommy”? I doubt there is much that Kaufmann couldn’t pull off.