During the Romantic Age, composers in the German-speaking world set to music many of the era’s greatest poems in the German language. An outstanding example is “Dichterliebe,” or “A Poet’s Love,” the song cycle composed by Robert Schumann in 1840. All sixteen poems here were penned originally by Heinrich Heine, the German poet famous for “Das Buch der Lieder” – “The Book of Songs.” As witnessed by the title of his collection, Heine already had something deeply musical in mind with the composition of these poems, which range from charming to gloomy to humorous to deeply ironic.
While often performed by a singer simply standing next to a piano and presenting these works as “art songs,” the outstanding production staged and directed by Jay Brock being performed this Valentine’s Day weekend emphasizes once again the Heine texts. The production does so in two ways. In the first, it features Devony Smith in a complete and exceedingly moving performance of “Dichterliebe.” In her performance, the mezzo-soprano does not merely sing the songs, but emotes and gestures, making full use of the stage and auditorium itself as she perambulates on all sides of the audience.
The Smith method gives feeling as well as drama to the poems, bringing a dramatic energy especially to the most directly musical of the poems, “The flutes and fiddles are sounding,” or in the German original, “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen.” A particularly fine moment in which the singer mixes gesture and facial expression is in the sadly humorous song/poem “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen:”
A youth once loved a maiden,
Who loved another instead;
The other himself loved another,
And with the latter did wed.
For those who do not know German, English translations are projected above the stage. The accompanying pianist is Alejandro Hernandaez-Valdez, who plays these art songs with great sensitivity and whom we shall meet again as conductor later in the evening’s performance.
After intermission, one might traditionally expect a second song cycle, perhaps Schumann’s “Liederkreis,” which is sometimes paired with “Dichterliebe.” Yet here, “It’s Complicated,” as the program’s subtitle suggests, for Professor Brock (chair of Catholic University’s Music Performance Department) has in store a Valentine’s Day surprise: A return to the songs of “Dichterliebe,” as recomposed by Christian Jost. This contemporary German composer (born in 1963) put together this new version of “Dichterliebe” in response to his wife’s losing battle with cancer and her subsequent passing. As one would expect, this is an even more somber rendering of “Dichterliebe.”
Now the auditorium lights are darkened and on stage tenor Vale Rideout is seated holding a text and with a glass of spirits on his table. Mr. Rideout’s voice and nine instruments of the New Orchestra of Washington, conducted superbly Dr. Hernandaez-Valdez, burst forth in the songs of the “Dichterliebe” cycle. While Mr. Rideout’s outstanding performance is a largely traditional lyrical rendering of the Schumann/Heine songs, it often cuts through a swath of ensemble dissonance. This effective combination or rather contrast successfully expresses the ironic, contrasting style and intent of the poet Heine in his original “Das Buch der Lieder.”
The crux of the performance is “Ich grolle nicht,” or “I’ll Bear No Grudge” (or perhaps we will translate this a little more poetically as “I’ll Not Complain”). Composer Jost in an interview has said this song is the “big hit of the cycle,” as it “almost has the structure of a pop song.” He accentuated this element in his “recomposition” of “Ich grolle nicht,” which he has described as “jazzy and forward driving.” The New Orchestra of Washington achieves this through various techniques, notably the effective percussion of Matt Teodori. The earnestness of Mr. Rideout’s interpretation is particularly effective in this song.
This second portion of the evening has an added dramatic element. Throughout the Jost reimagining of “Dichterliebe,” Devony Smith, whom we met earlier as mezzo-soprano, returns here as actress—as the elusive object of the “poet’s love,” often in front of the tenor, often in the periphery, and often painfully absent.
One small quibble: the program notes, while voluminous on information regarding the performers, is oddly silent on the poignant story behind Christian Jost’s recomposition of “Dichterliebe” as an expression of love and of mourning for his wife. If so, the Heine lyrics “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” so painfully emoted by Mr. Rideout would take on far greater meaning:
Lately I was weeping,
I dreamt you were placed in your grave.
Running Time: two hours and 15 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.
The current production of “A Poet’s Love: It’s Complicated” featuring the Schumann and Jost versions of “Dichterliebe” is to be an all-too-short one. The stagings at Live! at 10th and G in Washington, D.C., end with the evening performance on February 15, 2020, at 8 p.m. For more information, visit online.