Monday 4 July 2022

Added depth: Julien Van Mellaerts & James Baillieu mix Die schöne Müllerin with the poems not set by Schubert, read by Christopher Purves, to remarkable effect

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin - James Baillieu, Julien Van Mellaerts, Christopher Purves - Opera in Song at Opera Holland Park
Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin - James Baillieu, Julien Van Mellaerts, Christopher Purves - Opera in Song at Opera Holland Park

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin; Julien Van Mellaerts, James Baillieu, Christopher Purves; Opera in Song at Opera Holland Park
Reviewed 2 July 2022 (★★★★½)

Combining Schubert's song cycle with Müller's original poems gives added depth to a finely engaging and moving account of the young poet's journey

This year's Opera in Song at Opera Holland Park included performances of the three great Schubert song-cycles, each taking a slightly different approach. on Friday 1 July 2022, baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Ella O'Neill performed Winterreise in Jeremy Sams' English version, Winter Journey, and on Sunday 3 July 2022, mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska and pianist Kunal Lahiry performed Schwanengesang in the original German with songs from Errollyn Wallen's new commission, The Lake interpolated throughout.

On Saturday 2 July 2022, we caught baritone Julien Van Mellaerts (co-curator of the Opera in Song series) and pianist James Baillieu perform Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin  (in German) with baritone Christopher Purves reading those poems from Wilhelm Müller's original poetic cycle that Schubert did not set, using Bryan Benner's English translation. This meant that we got Müller's prologue and epilogue, along with three poems from the main cycle that Schubert omitted but which add depth to the story.

Purves proved to have a lovely speaking voice, with the poetry beautifully and affectingly read, the prologue was particularly moving and the three extra poems, coming after the sixth song, Der Neugierige, the fifteenth, Eifersucht und Stolz and the seventeenth, Die böse Farbe, did not add anything to the bald narrative but provided a lot more background to the young man's strange state of mind, in particular the final of these led us into some very strange territory indeed. The epilogue, where the poet bids us farewell, was simply mesmerising.

Van Mellaerts protagonist was an engaging young man, in the first song clearly pleased to be here. Van Mellaerts created a very distinct character, rather full of himself yet given to moments of introspection. There was nothing suspect about him, yet gradually as the cycle evolved, Van Mellaerts, finely aided and abetted by Baillieu, gradually suggested quite how much of a fantasist he was, how much of his apparent joy was happening inside his head.

And he was definitely a young man, Halt had a nice youthful swagger to it, yet the next two songs took us through gentle introspection to something darker leading to anger and anxiety. By Der Neugierige, the touching simplicity led to a moving complexity, then the spoken section exploring his darker thoughts. 

Ungeduld was indeed suitably impulsive and impatient, but we become aware of the way he took things to hard and Des Müllers Blumen verged in the stalker-ish at times. Was the happiness in Tränenregen real or imaginary, with the real bathos at the end. More vivid swagger led to the quietly thoughtful yet troubled Pause

With Mit dem grünen Lautenbande we returned to his internal troubles as the words tumbled out, through to the second spoken section as he thinks about making new songs about the joys that he used to know. Having seen the hunter in her arms (in reality or in his imagination), The Beloved Colour was contained, with infinite melancholy yet erupting in the anger of Die böse Farbe.

Before Trocknen Blumen came the final interpolated poem, strange and bleak as he seems to presage his own death. And indeed Van Mellaerts bleached tone in Trocknen Blumen led us to a different, bleaker world. Der Müller und der Bach contrasted the millers lyric melancholy with the glimmer of hope offered by the stream. Finally, Des Baches Wiegenlied was very centred, touching and wise. Throughout, James Baillieu was a sensitive partner, reflecting the way Van Mellaerts' took the character on his journey. But of course, the final word went to the poet, in the voice of Christopher Purves who was mesmerising.

The inclusion of the extra poems and particularly the profoundly beautiful prologue and epilogue brought added depth and meaning to the cycle and certainly helped illuminate a fine performance.

Van Mellaerts was born and brought up on New Zealand, where he did his first degree, and in his booklet note about the cycle he linked the cycle's protagonist's mental troubles with modern mental health, noting that "New Zealand has some of the highest levels of youth suicide in the western world, particularly amongst young men. Too many of us know someone who has suffered from mental illness, and the more we can learn about it and talk about it, the more we can help those who are struggling with their mental health."

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • Arun Ghosh's The Canticle of the Sun at the Spitalfields Music Festival - concert review
  • New ways of working: composer Andrew Chen has two contrasting pieces at this year's Cheltenham Music Festival - interview
  • Unsung Heroines: Lauren Fagan & Opera Holland Park Young Artists in a celebration of women composers and more - concert review
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  • An afternoon delight: Anna Morrisey's inventive production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville at Nevill Holt Opera, in a finely musical performance conducted by Dinis Sousa - opera review
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  • Obsessed by voices: pianist Dylan Perez on recording the complete songs of Samuel Barber - interview
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  • Never such innocence: Benjamin Hewat-Craw & Yuhao Guo in RVW, Butterworth & Gurney - record review
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