New York

Christian Boltanski

Throughout his career, Christian Boltanski has used the trappings of the individual—the portrait photograph, the worn coat, the pair of shoes—to memorialize the terrible anonymity of violence, specifically that of the Holocaust. His design for the recent BAM production of Franz Schubert’s masterwork Die Winterreise showcased the artist’s strengths: a sculptural understanding of ghostliness and the ability to temper elegy with just the right amount of existential dread. However, as is frequently the case when artists design for the theater, Boltanski’s production never quite coalesced dramatically. A certain static quality pervaded the piece, which in the end felt more like an incrementally changing installation than a theatrical work with a climax and denouement.

This was partly due to the impressionistic nature of Die Winterreise, a song cycle that chronicles the despairing meditations of a poet-wanderer who, disappointed in love, has exiled himself to the snowy night and thoughts of death. Returning to his abiding concerns, Boltanski subtly recast this protagonist as an antihero of the concentration camps—deportee or prisoner, survivor or spirit. The artist chose as his guiding metaphor the reverie of a train journey, presented as a melancholic accumulation of moments, in which the traveler’s perception is all-controlling even as his participation in what he sees is nil. This was an inspired choice, rhyming the tragic wanderlust at the heart of Schubert’s romantic music with the grisly and specifically twentieth-century suggestion of the train moving its passengers ever closer to death.

The production, directed by Hans-Peter Cloos with lighting by Jean Kalman, featured many of Boltanski’s signature materials—bare lightbulbs, abandoned clothing, grainy black-and-white film—and here, as in much of his work, they functioned as ciphers for absence, guilt, and grief. A large semicircle of wooden folding chairs, their backs to the audience, surrounded a concert piano. Draped with ’30s-style overcoats and suit jackets, the chairs suggested a mob of crouching figures or an audience who had been made to disappear. More period clothes—dresses, suits, pajamas—were filled out with armature and hung from above on long wires; these garments twisted slowly in midair, like a forest of hanged wraiths. Upstage stood three white scrims on metal frames resembling old-fashioned hospital partitions. Meanwhile, projected onto the rear wall of the stage so that its image was fragmented by the scrims, a black-and-white film (made by Boltanski, Cloos, and Kalman, with Marie Pawlotsky) showed a vaguely European landscape of low buildings and poplar trees, seen from the windows of a moving train.

When originally mounted by Boltanski in 1994, at the Opéra Comique in Paris, the production featured a larger cast of actors and a dancer. The set at BAM was populated by only two figures—baritone James Maddalena and pianist Robert Spano—making it feel at once underutilized and overwhelming. Maddalena circulated as best he could through all this, but his movements felt arbitrary. The same was true for the visual events, which established a powerful mood but did not create a sense of an integrated dramatic arc. Shadows loomed; dangling lightbulbs shone like winter stars; the hanging clothes rose out of sight and, later, slowly dropped down again. At one point a number of suits and dresses fell from above, hitting the floor with a suicidal thwack. A woman’s face appeared in the projected film, hovering on one of the white scrims; a wedding dress descended from the flies and hung like an emblem above the singer’s head. Each stage picture replaced, rather than wbuilt on, the last.

Die Winterreise is an associative, atmospheric work, and it has inspired visual artists before—Juan Munoz and Tim Rollins + K.O.S., to name a few. Boltanski’s physicalization of Schubert’s haunting music was disjointed, but at least in each separate moment his vision glowed.

Frances Richard