PRINT February 1999


Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg

GUSTAV MAHLER’S Kindertotenlieder and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire are dark song cycles written in the first part of this century. The former is a meditation on the death of children, the latter, a hallucination of insanity. Not exactly cheery subject matter, and at only a half-hour apiece, these morose musical journeys wouldn’t seem especially promising as stage productions. This winter, as part of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers’ “New Visions” series, two separate presentations turn to unconventional means as a way of unpacking an evening’s worth of theater out of these haunted masterworks.

This month, renowned Canadian stage director Robert Lepage tackles the Mahler cycle, five songs set to poems by Friedrich Rückert. As in his large-scale Seven Streams of the River Ota, in which he juggled disparate time frames to explore humankind’s ability to recover from atomic cataclysm, Lepage cinematically intertwines disjunct layers of plot: a pregnant singer (played by Rebecca Blankenship) rehearsing the song cycle, though superstitious, à la Gustav’s wife Alma before her, of the adverse effect the songs may have; the same singer, ten years later, traveling to America with her sickly daughter to seek a cure; and the singer and her accompanist transformed into Gustav and Alma, whose own elder daughter succumbed nearly three years after the composer completed his eerily predictive cycle. Lepage seamlessly stitches together the time folds of his ghost story through his signature dynamic interaction of lithe lighting and mystifying mise-en-scène to present a compellingly visual poem on the invisible forces connecting people across time.

Pianist Sarah Rothenberg, artistic director of Da Camera of Houston, and performance artist John Kelly, best known for his Joni Mitchell impersonations and his evocative portrait of Egon Schiele, have taken a different tactic with Pierrot in their recently staged Moondrunk. Because Schoenberg’s atonal 1912 setting of twenty-one surrealistic poems by Albert Giraud is one of the most original and bizarre pieces ever penned—the singer doesn’t actually “sing” but employs Sprechstimme, a kind of vocalizing halfway between singing and speaking—Rothenberg resurrects, for unprepared ears, the work’s forgotten historical context. Following a Schoenberg orchestration of a schmaltzy Strauss waltz, a shadow play is enacted to a historical sound track of Alexander Moissi reciting Goethe’s “Erlkönig” in a manner approximating Sprechstimme. Finally, crossing late romanticism with early modernism, Rothenberg mixes and matches late Brahms and early Schoenberg piano pieces. When Pierrot is ultimately performed, Kelly’s choreography, expressively lit by Jennifer Tipton, matches the three sections of the music (“Moondrunk,” “Night,” and “Nostalgia”). The three dancers (including Kelly) are slowly transformed from World War I soldiers into commedia dell’arte characters. By the time Schoenberg’s arresting nightmare is complete, listeners are better attuned to the disorienting, even shattering complexities of this macabre cabaret.

Robert Hilferty is a writer based in New York.