Review: Le Chimera’s Winterreise struggles under weight of complexity

Franz Schubert wrote Die Winterreise in 1828.

When I was a piano student, my teacher gave me some wise advice about playing Schubert. “Pare everything down,” she would say. Simplicity is the key to intimacy, and intimacy is the heart of Schubert’s music. So I worked at stripping away anything theatrical or fake. 

It’s a lesson bass-baritone Philippe Sly and director Roy Rallo need to learn. Their Le Chimera project takes Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle — that perfect capsule of human grief and alienation — and adds, and adds, and then adds some more. Staging. A klezmer band. Miscellaneous clutter that takes away from the music’s meaning more than it enhances it. 

This version of Winterreise has already been released as a recording on the Analekta label, and now Sly, Rallo and the other Chimera members are touring with the live show. On Monday they performed in front of Sly’s hometown audience at Ottawa’s Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre. 

The project’s stated goal was to reimagine and reinterpret a staple of classical repertoire, to reveal it anew. Instead, Sly and Rallo camouflage it under layers of self-indulgent experimentation. Perhaps the intent was sincere, but the result comes across as the worst kind of vanity project. 

Rallo’s staging turns the achingly spare Winterreise into an overwrought melodrama. Instead of letting the music and text speak for themselves, telling the story of a spurned, heartbroken lover adrift in a wintery landscape, Rallo has Sly writhe and stomp across the stage in a frenzy of outsized angst. The singer is often on his knees, or curled up on the ground in the fetal position, singing into his armpit. Sly is an intense, charismatic performer, but this was emoting standing in for emotion; manufactured literalism that left no room for an artist’s subtle, personal or spontaneous interpretation. 

Inexplicably, the creative team got rid of two things that are absolutely essential to Winterreise. The first is the text. Before the concert, Rallo explained that it was a conscious decision not to include the Müller poems or their translations in the program. Instead, loose translations of the song titles are flashed briefly on a small screen (the audience was kept in pitch darkness, also on purpose, so even if texts had been available nobody would have been able to refer to them). This was not helpful to anyone unfamiliar with the songs, or with any type of visual impairment. It’s an example of non-inclusive, audience-last programming. 

The second omission was the piano. Schubert made the piano a full, complicit partner on the singer’s journey. The piano score is idiomatic and brimming with personality, with many profoundly beautiful, innovative solo passages–think of those delicate, shimmery, fluttering motifs in Der Lindenbaum. It’s a sound that simply cannot be replaced by using random instruments. Sly picked a klezmer ensemble but he could just as well have been performing with a gamelan ensemble, a Salvation Army brass band or a ukulele orchestra. 

Part of my disappointment with the arrangement might have been because there were so many sins of execution as well as concept. I’ve heard much better klezmer musicians than this quartet: bands whose members can play in tune, with technical virtuosity and beautiful tone. 

All of this window-dressing became a wall between the audience and Sly’s singing (you could barely hear him at all over the honking trombone in Die Post). It’s understandable that a young singer would want to avoid comparisons to the legends that came before. But this frustrating performance went to the other extreme, trying so hard to be “original” and “different” that it left me with only the vaguest impression of Sly’s voice in this repertoire: rich, resonant, meaty lower notes; a healthy approach to portamento; a tendency to overuse sotto voce effects for emphasis.  

If simplicity is the key to connecting with Schubert, this noisy project shut the door on that connection. I have never not choked up while listening to (or playing) Winterreise. I guess there’s a first time for everything.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.