Incandescent! This is the best description of Bel Cantanti’s production, led spectacularly by Dr. Katerina Souvorova. It is a dramatic staging of Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” (“The Lovely Maid of the Mills”), a collection of Wilhelm Müller’s poems to music. Anchored by the expressive vocal talent of baritone Robert McGinness, this production also includes a few excellent additions to make the production accessible to a wider audience.
Incandescent…brilliant…a rare, provocative performance of a major vocal work of poetry, providing access through a fusion of German Romantic poetry, music, and art.
The performance begins with the invitation “I invite you to an hour in the greenery” from the poet. This is Wilhelm Müller’s prologue to Schubert’s “song cycle,” here read, as it is not one of the Müller poems Schubert set to music. From there we move into the operatic-style production itself, with song titles providing cues to the musical scenes and evincing the mood of the poetry, which traces a symbolic wanderer’s journey from joy in the rustic mill-by-the brook setting to the beauty of love to final death: “Morning Greeting,” “The Miller’s Flowers,” “A Rain of Tears,” and “Jealousy and Pride.” The production features in total twenty songs, all sung (as is traditional) by the single voice of Mr. McGinness, who beautifully portrays, at various times, lyrics of the love-struck male youth (the journeyman miller), the personified babbling brook, and even the lovely maid of the mills.
Song cycles are generally an hour long and feature only a solo voice and piano. This show extends these limits in several ways, some of which are brilliant in their execution. A narrator, John Boulanger, makes insightful comments which provide an atmospheric background to the song cycle; dressed in 1800’s fashion, he also tells us a bit about Schubert’s life, especially as it relates to the artistic context of this production. The musical accompaniment is expanded from solo piano to instrumental quartet, with pianist Dr. Souvorova, oboist Eugene Sidorov, violinist Bagus Wiswakarma, and cellist Jihyeuk Choi. The quartet is especially effective at the conclusion of the show for its rendition of the lyrical melody “Ständchen.” Known in English as “Schubert’s Serenade,” it is not part of the “schöne Müllerin” song cycle. In this most famous piece of Schubert, each of the instruments is showcased splendidly in at least one solo.
In addition, there are dancers from the Olney Ballet (directed superbly by Erica Molina Hudak), along with projections of animations of the characters of this “novel in songs.” The video illustrations, designed by Ksenya Litvak, create an impressionistic atmosphere which harmonizes well with the music and narration. Similarly, the dancers add physicality to the performance; in a scene with a rushing brook, the dancers appear, wearing blue skirts, imitating waves, and lit up blue like the water—and also like the blue eyes of the lovely maiden of the mills. The Olney Ballet dancers lift and let fall blue sheer fabric, like a veil, representing the stream with opalescent fabric. Green appears later, symbolizing the journeyman’s rival the hunter, the land, and other themes, all of which enhance the show while keeping the focus on the music and the plot.
Music from Germany and Austria is known and appreciated in the English-speaking world, but German language and poetry less so. This presentation of Schubert’s song cycle not only highlights the work of Schubert but it also helps overcome the language barrier and allows the audience to experience the poet Wilhelm Müller and his sad but romantic tale of the journeyman miller more directly. Thus, it is a rare, provocative performance of a major vocal work of poetry, providing access through a fusion of German Romantic poetry, music, and art. It runs one hour, 45 minutes with intermission.
“Die schöne Müllerin” was performed on May 27 and 29, 2022 presented by Bel Cantanti at the JCC of Greater Washington at 6125 Montrose Avenue, Rockville, MD. For more information on Bel Cantini and upcoming production, please go to their website.