Schubert’s Operas Were Failures. Is Their Music Worth Saving?

In a program note, Pichon says that in Schubert’s opera catalog, there is “no forgotten masterpiece to revive.” But while going through those works, he added, he came across moments of “almost spiritual meditation,” in which Schubert the composer of “the universal voice” emerges. From those, he and the director Silvia Costa assembled “L’Autre Voyage.”

The show begins, though, not with opera but with song — projected text from “Gute Nacht,” the opening of “Winterreise” that gives way to the spare chords of the cycle’s ending, “Der Leiermann.” Hence the title: From the “winter journey” of Schubert comes this “other journey,” one more expansive and lasting a lifetime.

Yet, in Schubertian fashion, its expansiveness is contained within something quite small. “Der Leiermann” is sung by a woman (Siobhan Stagg) at a spinning wheel who lets out a red string that stretches across the stage. From it she cuts a fragment barely more than a foot long.

That red string, the most heavy-handed metaphor in “L’Autre Voyage,” represents one life in the continuum of human existence, that of a male protagonist sung by the elegant baritone Stéphane Degout, who was also heavily featured on “Mein Traum.” Costa is a director who builds images more than scenes, which suits the nonlinear nature of this show. Through those tableaux we see the man happy — at his wedding, or watching his child sing at the piano — but also in unbearable pain. His child dies; he gets older; he sometimes feels as though he, too, is dead.

There can never be resolution to a story like this. But “L’Autre Voyage” suggests there is serenity in realizing that whatever we live through, it is all part of the ever-changing human experience. Along the way, Schubert’s music — arias and lieder, and other excerpts — is strung together with slight alterations, particularly in the arrangements by Robert Percival that, while occasionally anachronistic, maintain the show’s dramatic heft and a sense of consistency.

Works that Schubert wrote for just two musicians or forces as large as an entire orchestra and choir come out sounding nearly, neatly the same. But the moments that stand out most — for their poetry, their lyrical turns of phrase, their sensitive beauty — tend to come in the lieder. And that’s not a bad thing. Schubert might have failed in opera, but he was a master of the art song.

Few lieder composers have approached Schubert in his power to move listeners. And he nudged the form in new directions, especially on the dramatic, evening-length scale of his two song cycles. Those, among his most lasting contributions to music, have taken on a life beyond what he intended. It’s now not unusual to see a staged “Winterreise”; you could call it the greatest opera that Schubert ever wrote.

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