Last Tuesday San Francisco Performances presented Nathan and Julie Gunn in what turned out to be an unexpectedly controversial performance of Schubert’s Die Schoene Mullerin.
I’m on the pro side; I found it absorbing and moving. Initially, given Gunn’s considerable skill as an actor, I was a little surprised that he seemed a bit distant from the character; I had expected a more fervent acting-out. As the performance progressed, though, I came to think it was a deliberate and psychologically astute move: what kind of young man kills himself because the girl he fancies rejects him for another? Not someone who’s strong, vibrant, and self-confident. He is recessive about expressing his deep inner emotions, until his rejection in favor of the huntsman (which I guess is the Beidermeyer equivalent of dumping the sensitive boy in favor of the jock) leads to his suicide in the millstream. Clearly there was characterization going on, since even without following the words line by line, I could tell when Gunn was voicing the Miller Girl or the stream. I’ve always found Gunn to be a singer sensitive to words and characterization, so if my initial impression is puzzlement I’m willing to wait and see where he’s going with his conception.
One of those who disliked the performance described Julie Gunn’s playing as “banging,” but I know exactly the moment he was referring to – it’s when she’s imitating the millstones; in other words, “banging” is not only suitable but demanded by the context, and if it doesn’t sound pretty then so be it. I don't mind a little muscle in my Schubert. I found her flowing and lyrical when the stream runs through the songs, and the final song, Des Baches Wiegenlied, where the river speaks to the young man now dead in her depths, I found deeply moving, like a mother rocking her child to sleep. The very end reminded me of the end of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, when the soul of Troilus ascends the heavens and looks down and laughs at his earthly pains and finds peace.
The only other time I had seen Julie Gunn was at their Cal Performances recital maybe six (or ten?) years ago. That was an afternoon recital so maybe she was in less formal attire. She sure glams up nicely! Let me go all Captain Obvious here and say that the Gunns are a remarkably attractive couple. He was wearing a tuxedo, and the only performance-related comment I overheard walking up the aisles afterward was one guy saying to another, “I really like his tuxedo!” The pornstache is gone, by the way.
Back to the performance. I was put me in mind of Erwartung several times, which is fine with me. For my taste, a perhaps more traditional reading, with a wholesome lad smitten by a pretty girl, and then unhappy in love, all set on the green banks of a picturesquely burbling stream, is just a little too close to kitsch, or at least is just a little too distant from anything I experience in the world around me. I enjoy Currier and Ives, but mannerism and neurosis I feel and understand. Having said that, I don’t want to exaggerate any possible eccentricities of interpretation in the performance. I found it a psychologically plausible approach to what the words and music hold.
It was over the next few days after the concert I heard from some who were unhappy with it. Normally I don’t really engage (at least here in the Hills) with other people’s reactions because people are entitled to their diverse experiences and opinions, and this is the one place where I can try to express mine freely. I value the exchange of opinions, but it’s surprisingly rare to find people who can do that without arguing, and I never argue; what’s the point? Arguing is about scoring points off your opponent – in other words, it’s about power, and I’m all about the love. But in this case there were enough objections from people whose opinions I respect so that I felt I needed to think through what they were saying or implying. The basic objections seemed to be a lack of dramatic involvement (which I talked about above) and a feeling that the performance wasn’t in appropriate lieder style.
It’s possible that being steeped in a tradition can give you a deep but not always wide view of how something should be approached. It’s possible that the more you know about something, the more conservative become your views of how that something needs to be approached; or maybe "conservative" isn't the right word; maybe it's more how I feel about Shakespeare, where I am so familiar with the plays that I have ideas about the points that should be made in every scene or even line. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by a new insight, but more often I'm thinking about what I feel was missed. I realized years ago that I would never see a production of Shakespeare that I thought hit every mark.
I don’t have any pre-set ideas about how this cycle should be performed. To me the Gunns' performance was well within the range of plausible interpretations. I don’t want to give the impression that the audience generally seemed unhappy with the performance, but there did seem to be a respectable contingent who were.
People are free to ascribe my enjoyment to my ignorance of true lieder tradition or personal messed-upness or whatever. I say all this honestly in a spirit of complete respect. Certainly many’s the time I’ve given someone a list of objections to a production or movie only to be told, “Yeah, you’re right about all that, but I still enjoyed it.” And I’m fine with that. People value different things and they can take what they want from what I say but it’s what they experience that they need to go with. And I always figure, well, they enjoyed their evening, and I didn’t enjoy mine, so good for them. I’m kind of liking being on the other side of that fence for once.
And here’s my little opera news semi-scoop, probably the only one you’ll ever find here: After the performance the Gunns were signing programs and CDs in the lobby. I have a slightly silly love for having signed books and CDs, so knowing SF Performances often has artist signings after these events, I came prepared with my copy of Gunn’s Billy Budd recording. We spoke briefly about the opera and he told me that he would be singing it at the Met, not next season but the one after. So there you have it. I know companies are often weird about keeping these things hush-hush but I assume it’s OK to repeat this since he was pretty casual about mentioning it. That bit of casting wasn’t even on Brad Wilber’s Met Futures page, last time I checked. So I'll see you in New York in two years!