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Ghost Story

Avant-garde director Robert Lepage builds an enigmatic scene around Mahler's heartbreaking "Kindertotenlieder," and the results are truly mortifying.

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Since merely listening to a great performer no longer seems good enough, the folks at Lincoln Center are now searching for alternatives. This season's novel approach is called "New Visions," a series designed to explore the classical repertoire "in bold new ways" by presenting music in theatrical contexts. There is actually nothing wildly avant-garde about that notion -- concert works never meant for dancing are regularly choreographed, directors have often staged narrative song cycles like Schubert's Winterreise, slide shows have been used to illustrate Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, etc. -- but the possibilities for real mischief, once this particular Pandora's box has been opened, are practically limitless.

Even so, I'd like to think that Lincoln Center will eventually come up with something more compelling than Robert Lepage's staging of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, an unconvincing playlet that recently received three performances at the John Jay College Theater. It's hard to know what the director saw in such an interior expression of grief that he felt could be dramatized. In one of literature's great therapeutic outpourings, Friedrich Rückert wrote 425 poems in 1834, all dealing with the deaths of his two small children, and by 1904 Mahler had set five of them to music, much to his wife's superstitious horror (sure enough, the Mahlers' own eldest daughter died of scarlet fever three years later). Now a repertory piece, the cycle stands as one of the most moving musical statements of loss ever written.

In order to spin out a plotless twenty-minute song cycle into an hour-long music drama, Lepage and the writer Blake Morrison have devised a scenario involving a married couple preparing to separate, their mopey teenage daughter, and an enigmatic pianist who occasionally wanders in to accompany the woman in a Mahler song. Not much else happens to these inert characters, who seem strangely catatonic and speak mostly in barely audible whispers. To make matters worse, Rebecca Blankenship's unsteady singing lacks tonal allure and expressive nuance, the real fatal flaw in a "new vision" that ends up trivializing great music rather than illuminating it. By far the star of this feeble show is the glorious turn-of-the-century piano, a beautifully restored 1904 Bechstein Boudoir Grand, which proudly commands center stage.

It was a relief to encounter Mahler without stage trappings the next evening, as the New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur conducting, performed the composer's heartbreaking symphony of songs, Das Lied von der Erde. More familiar for their work in opera than in concert, the two vocal soloists were cast against type: Jennifer Larmore, pegged hereabouts as a Rossini specialist, and Richard Leech, a tenor who tends mostly to the lyric French-Italian repertory. I can't say that the experiment worked -- Larmore's lightish mezzo-soprano has neither the dark coloration nor the necessary expressive weight for Mahler's melodic declamation, and Leech more or less just hurled his voice at the notes. Still, it was different, as was Masur's dry-eyed but sensitively inflected interpretation.


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