A sole singer -- make that acclaimed British tenor Ian Bostridge -- and his high-skill piano accompanist Julius Drake, performing Schubert's Winterreise were quite enough, on the bare stage at UCLA's Royce Hall, to create an epic drama in desolation, a 70-minute journey through the icy gloom of a young man's heartbreak.
Now we're not talking about the sort of portrayals that such legends as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Hermann Prey have etched in the past -- interpreters who let the Müller poems pass their lips so artfully and movingly, the former with exquisite attention to text, the latter with supreme vocal finesse, faces catching the light, focus outward.
No, Bostridge makes Schubert's song cycle the dramatic equal of Shakespeare's Hamlet. He physically embodies the shivering sufferer in his own neurasthenic way. Lanky beyond what's reasonable, pale and almost gaunt, his onstage presence takes no note of the audience. He looks down mostly, he rocks against the piano, crouches sometimes in its crook or leans sideways at an extreme angle, hanging onto the lid. He suddenly bends over, in an urgent reaction, or rises, exasperated, on his toes. He strides here and there in thoughtful agitation, quickly changing direction as the impulse dictates. All of it comes as an intensely inward experience that just happens to have people attending.
None of this is to say that Bostridge slights the singing -- it's part of the expressive whole. He boasts clarion tones pouring out on command and alternating with lovely head tones, a gorgeous pianissimo and all manner of nuance, coloration, filigree, agility to spare. I even suspect that if he someday lost the physical comportment, his endless variety of voices would serve as well to portray the character's abject paranoia, soul-destroying anger and overall anguish.
His is a well-documented performance. Director David Alden incorporated it in a DVD. YouTube has a four-minute cut. And history/philosophy scholar Bostridge has famously sung Winterreise internationally -- even while live recitals have become a rare species.
For the 24th and final number of the cycle, "Der Leiermann," he took a bystander's approach as he described the wretched organ-grinder, whose bare feet shifted on the ice -- the tenor's voice now monochromatic, bleached of emotion, as the pianist chased those last, minor-keyed figures.
A French orchestra playing a whole evening of Ravel is about as ravishing a prospect you can imagine. Especially when we're talking about the Orchestre Philharmonique de France, led by its director Myung-Whun Chung, and the bill includes such dazzlers as Daphnis et Chloé (both suites) and Shéhérazade with prima soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.
Why? Because there's something about the composer's big, fully orchestrated scores that, taken together, seem like explorations of another realm, perhaps an underwater world where submerged creatures lurk and waft here and there. Royce Hall, with its reverberant acoustic, yielded every ingenious mystery Ravel conjured with his low wind rumblings, both distant and near, murky and frightening, ever-brilliant as atmospheric scorings.
And then there was Chung himself, once an L.A. Phil assistant conductor, who, with his deliberative podium manner, seizes on the details of this Impressionist master. So deliberative, in fact, so small in scale, and even static at times, that we might worry about his cardio-aerobic deficit! This kind of baton-wielding could take place inside a walnut shell -- except for the maestro's sudden karate-chop explosions and the ensuing roars that held us in thrall.
Of course, with the ballet score Daphnis et Chloé, commissioned by Diaghilev and featuring Nijinsky back in those heady days of Russian-French artistic revolution, we were properly expectant. Yes, this is music to be swept up in. And the Parisians, no matter how they may sound in the Salle Pleyel, had some of us levitating, right here in Royce. There were breath-taking moments -- thanks greatly to the principal flutist (unnamed in the program) and, really, all of the marvelous musicians, when a myriad of sonic colors, all delicately flickering at once, simply seized me in their loveliness.
Von Otter, on the other hand, did not find any of the language's sensuality and that detracted much from her performance -- although when it came to the swelling Wagnerian vocal demands she more than met. Ma Mere L'Oye, in its complete form, and La Valse, made irresistibly tender-satiric bookends to the program no music-lover should have missed.