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Theatre in Review: Doppelganger (Park Avenue Armory)

Photo: Monika Rittershaus/Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

I write with some hesitation about this music-theatre performance piece, being not especially well-versed in classical music or the high-concept work of director Claus Guth. Yet Doppelganger is so stunningly designed that anyone who has the opportunity to catch one of its three remaining performances should do so. It offers the sort of large-scale brilliance that doesn't come along every day.

The basis for Doppelganger is Franz Schubert's Schwanengesang or Swan Song; not quite a full-out song cycle, it sets to music 14 poems by Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Rellstab. (The title is ironic since these pieces were written at the end of Schubert's life; then again, maybe not so ironic, since he knew he was dying.) Some of these texts seem to be filtered through the imagination of a soldier; all of them are suffused with longing. As delivered by the incomparable tenor Jonas Kaufmann, they are the piercingly beautiful account of a wounded soldier lost in his memories of a far-away beloved.

In Guth's concept, the floor at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory has become a field hospital of the World War One era, a landscape packed with beds, many of them occupied by the battle-scarred; Michael Levine's scenic design makes an arresting statement about the ravages of war. That the action unfolds inside the former Seventh Regiment Armory only adds to the effect; the space is, after all, known as the Drill Hall. As the piece begins, Kaufman is discovered in one of the beds; the pianist Helmut Deutsch, located in the center of the room, begins to play and the tenor roams the space, delivering the songs while a company of dancers, dressed as soldier-patients, act out their physical and psychological distress and a battery of nurses moves through the space, often accompanied by rolling IV drips. (The movement direction is by Sommer Ulrickson.) At times, there is a considerable hubbub, but Kaufman remains essentially alone, a lost soul deep in a dream of distant yearning.

Capturing all of this is the superb lighting design of Urs Schönebaum, which, working a narrow palette of color-temperature whites, creates an astonishingly varied series of looks: picking out the beds with pinpoint precision, carving bodies out of the darkness, filling the room with a sharply angular forest-of-beams look; and blasting the company from the east wall with a triple-barreled rig that floods with space with an onslaught of cauterizing sunlight. The design is both epic and simple, a demonstration of what can be achieved without saturated colors, patterns, or ostentatious movements.

Certain lighting effects, I think, are achieved in collaboration with the video designer rocafilm; these include the horizontal band of cold white light that sweeps across the room, following the nurses on their rounds. Other video effects, focused on the floor, feature a kind of television static look, blood-red flower petals, and tree branches, set against a gray sky and reduced by wintertime to bare ruined choirs. The melding of the two design disciplines is so complete that it is often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.

In addition, Constance Hoffman's costumes, more than any other design contribution, strongly evoke the era of the war to end all wars. Mark Grey provides light amplification for Kaufman's voice plus reinforcement for Mathis Nitschke's original music and sound compositions, which, together, constitute the production's weakest aspect. As I understand it, Nistchke's music is intended to provide a bridge between the Schubert pieces -- something that Guth felt was absolutely necessary to take Doppelganger out of the world of the concert recital -- but it and the sound effects, most of them battle-related, occasionally fight the haunting Schwanengesang melodies; surely it would have been better to let Schubert speak for himself.

For all the implied drama in Guth's staging, this is an essentially non-narrative work, an exploration of an interior landscape of loss, desire, and the passing of time. But it is always startlingly theatrical: Another coup de théâtre, involving an open door in the west wall and a bold burst of light from a source on Lexington Avenue, cues the entrance of the title figure, ending the piece on a mysterious and deathly note. Doppelgangaer is a singular event, the sort of unclassifiable production on which the Park Avenue Armory thrives. The music is ravishing, the design astoundingly accomplished. And if to underline the text's point about the evanescence of existence, in only a few days it will be gone. --David Barbour

(26 September 2023)

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