Concert Review: Song Cycle – Schubert’s ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ by Bel Cantanti Opera

The ribbon of green, linking the journeyman miller to his lute, his rival the hunter, and perhaps death. Narrator John Boulanger on the left and baritone Robert McGinness on the right. Photograph by Joshua Mongardini.

Incandescent! This is the best description of the production of Bel Cantanti, spectacularly directed by Dr. Katerina Souvorova. This is a dramatic staging of Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” (“The Beautiful Maid of the Mills”), a collection of poems set to music by Wilhelm Müller. Anchored by the expressive vocal talent of baritone Robert McGinness, this production also includes some great additions to make the production accessible to a wider audience.

Incandescent…brilliant…a rare and provocative performance of a major vocal poetic work, providing access through a fusion of German Romantic poetry, music and art.

The show begins with the poet’s invitation “I invite you to an hour in the greenery”. This is Wilhelm Müller’s prologue to Schubert’s “melody cycle”, read here, as it is not one of Müller’s poems that Schubert set to music. From there we move on to the opera-style production itself, with song titles providing cues to the musical scenes and setting the mood of the poetry, which charts the journey of a wanderer symbolic of joy in the Rustic setting from the mill by the stream to the beauty of love until final death: ‘Morning Greeting’, ‘The Miller’s Flowers’, ‘A Rain of Tears’ and ‘Jealousy and Pride’. The production comprises a total of twenty songs, all sung (as is traditional) by the sole voice of Mr. McGinness, who beautifully depicts, at various points, the words of the love-stricken young man (the journeyman miller), the babbling brook personified. , and even the charming maid of the mills.

Song cycles are usually one hour long and feature only solo vocals and piano. This show pushes those boundaries in a number of ways, some of which are brilliant in their execution. A narrator, John Boulanger, provides insightful commentary that provides an atmospheric backdrop to the song cycle; dressed in the fashion of the 1800s, he also tells us a bit about Schubert’s life, particularly with regard to the artistic context of this production. The musical accompaniment is extended from solo piano to instrumental quartet, with pianist Dr. Souvorova, oboist Eugene Sidorov, violinist Bagus Wiswakarma and cellist Jihyeuk Choi. The quartet is particularly effective at the end of the show for its interpretation of the lyrical melody “Ständchen”. Known in English as ‘Schubert’s Serenade’, it is not part of the ‘schöne Müllerin’ song cycle. In this most famous piece by Schubert, each of the instruments is beautifully showcased in at least one solo.

In addition, there are dancers from the Olney Ballet (magnificently directed by Erica Molina Hudak), as well as projections of animations of the characters from this “novel in songs”. The video illustrations, designed by Ksenya Litvak, create an impressionistic atmosphere that goes well with the music and narration. Likewise, the dancers add physicality to the performance; in a scene with a rushing stream, the dancers appear, dressed in blue skirts, imitating the waves, and lit like the blue like the water — and also like the blue eyes of the beautiful girl of the mills. Olney Ballet dancers lift and drop blue sheer fabric, like a veil, representing the stream with opalescent fabric. Green appears later, symbolizing the mate’s rival, hunter, earth, and other themes, all of which enhance the show while keeping the emphasis on music and plot.

Music from Germany and Austria is known and appreciated in the English-speaking world, but German language and poetry are less so. This presentation of Schubert’s song cycle not only sheds light on Schubert’s work, but also helps overcome the language barrier and allows the public to experience more directly the poet Wilhelm Müller and his sad but romantic tale of the journeyman miller. . It is therefore a rare and provocative interpretation of a major vocal poetic work, giving access to a fusion of German romantic poetry, music and art. It lasts 1h45 with intermission.

“Die schöne Müllerin” was performed May 27-29, 2022 presented by Bel Cantanti at JCC Greater Washington at 6125 Montrose Avenue, Rockville, MD. For more information on Bel Cantini and upcoming production, please visit their website.

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