What Is the Sound of Heartbreak?

Savage Winter is rather unsuccessful as an opera, but as a monologue, it’s incredibly compelling.

By Hannah Che October 23, 2018

Image: Lynn Lane

Heartbreak is rough, and it’s universal. Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, written in 1828 and based off Wilhelm Müller’s 24-poem cycle of the same name, is a seminal work that translates these emotions into a musical arc. And in Savage Winter, whose Aperio/American Opera Projects co-production debuted last Friday at MATCH, composer Douglas J. Cuomo attempts to recreate Schubert’s process, but in a contemporary sonic landscape.

The result is a one-act opera that lasts for 75 minutes, scored for four musicians—tenor, piano, electric guitar, and trumpet—and featuring tenor Tony Boutté.

Boutté opens the opera as the lone, bespectacled protagonist, wandering onto the dark stage in a black coat, top hat, and messenger bag. A projection of a snowstorm flashes behind them, accompanied by a loopy recording of disjointed voices, thudding synth beats, and static noise. This is no Schubert. 

Yet Cuomo’s soundscape, although hectic at times, is successful. His musical settings of the poems are spare but also imaginative, alternating between punchy rock 'n' roll guitar grooves, pointillistic and virtuosic piano writing, and ethereal manipulations of electronic sound. All 24 songs are surprisingly varied, which is no easy task. Standouts were the nostalgic folk-like melody in “The Linden Tree,” the back-and-forth improvisation in “The False Suns,” and the jazzy lyricism of “Rest,” where the line “You feel the serpent’s bite” is followed by a slinky, perfectly timed trumpet solo.

All the musicians were stellar: Alan Johnson on piano, Frank London on trumpet, and Cuomo himself playing the guitar part. Buoetté’s acting was a tad restrained for the character, but his phrasing was wonderfully expressive and nuanced. The highlight of his performance was during the most dramatic sequences, where his voice lost its polish and became aggressive and raw—almost shriek-like—on the highest notes.

Unlike the world premiere performance by the Pittsburgh Opera, where the full production featured a motel room set, the production at Aperio is minimal and stark, with only a rug and three wooden crates as props. I think the work could have an even more visceral impact in a more transportive space, but to his credit, Buoetté manipulates the crates effectively throughout the performance, interacting with them as chairs, tables, and soapbox, and in a stroke of ingenuity in “The Inn,” upturning them into three tombstones.

Dream-like sequences are projected on the screen: trees, snow, flowers blooming over maggot-infested flesh. A member of the audience later pointed out that the constant visuals were distracting, and I agree, but I think they were distracting in a good way—the relentless images merely heightens our sense of the protagonist’s internal turmoil, and relates it to a world where sensory overload is a reality.

The libretto itself is a free adaptation of Müller’s poems. “I wanted to adapt the text and write the music without inhibition and without any preconceived rules,” Cuomo said in the Q&A following the performance, and the only formal structure he retains is Schubert’s 24-poem sequence. Some of his songs are literal translations of the originals, but others are merely word fragments repeated obsessively (“When all is dark, I will be free.” “In the abyss, I will be free.”) Two of the texts are so freely adapted he “adapts the text out of them”—they’re purely instrumental, encapsulating the essence of the poem through sound instead.

Oddly, I found that the most successful songs were the ones that strayed farthest from the original text. Whenever the protagonist referenced a physical location—e.g. pointing out weather-vanes or carving his lover’s name in a frozen creek—I felt the opera becoming too obvert, too literal, too stilted.

Somehow it’s more powerful if the “winter’s journey” exists solely inside the protagonist’s head. It’s almost as if the other three musicians he interacts with on stage aren’t actually real, but conjured by his own disturbed imagination. You keep waiting for someone to step in, to intervene, but there is no one else. He’s trapped in his own struggle. Savage Winter is rather unsuccessful as an opera—it doesn’t have any clear narrative or even emotional arc—but as a monologue, it’s incredibly compelling. It’s a bold experiment with poetry and sound, one that successfully relates Müller's text to a language we can all understand.

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