Many years ago, I visited the Park Avenue Armory to do an interview with a company of actors and artists who were using a space upstairs to rehearse. In my memory (which could be faulty) it was a locker room of sorts for the former soldiers. Some did not return from the wars they fought.
The Armory cannot be separated from this military past. For this commission, Doppelganger, German opera director, Claus Guth, uses that history as his starting place–turning the massive drill hall into a site-specific medical ward for a World War I era hospital.
Using Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song) along with interlude sound compositions by Mathias Nitschke, he has attempted to create larger narrative cohesion in this song cycle.
Opera tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, is an unnamed soldier in this sea of hospital beds. Nurses (a cast of dancers) patrol the ward and tend to Kaufmann and the other soldiers. They clear out bloodied sheets in now empty beds.
Kaufmann’s solider sings of war, longing for past loves, sorrows, farewells, loss, and finally a doppelganger who he recognizes is himself. He is confronting his mortality slowly over the course of the 90-minute program. He is caught between his recollections of the past and his struggle to let go here and now.
With the combination of Nitschke’s eerie sound compositions, the enveloping overhead projections from rocafilm, the sharp lighting design from Urs Schönebaum, and the impeccable sound design by Mark Grey (always a challenge in the cacophonous Drill Hall), Doppelganger has tremendous atmosphere. Guth succeeds in unifying these creative elements to serve the piece.
Nitschke’s compositions seamlessly lead us through the separate songs sometimes with metallic scraping, sometimes piano strings plucked, or we can hear a low flying plane ominously approaching. It keeps the tension high. The projections over all these white beds at times looked like red, smoldering embers, a swirling sea or blood, barren tree branches, or a kind of snowy static. The production’s palette dominates with black, white, and red.
Reacting to the sound of cannon fire or thunder in the distance, the other soldiers (a cast of dancers) sometimes bolt upright in their beds, move with wild frenzy, leap, dance, twirl, crawl, wilt, or reconfigure the space and beds for different songs. With the beds, they build trench walls. They reflect the memories of war and the emotions of Kauffman’s solider.
Though with all this activity, the most poignant moment for me was when pianist Helmut Deutsch performs Schubert’s Piano Sonata 21 in B-flat Major. All motion ceases and the performers sit still rapt with the music. It is lamentation, nostalgia, and a sad-happiness that needs no words. It helps that there is this moment of stillness. It is a nice reflection point in the show and a moment of calm before the death that is to come.
Kaufmann’s soldier is eventually visibly wounded before us and begins to bleed from his gut. He is “unhappy Atlas” who must bear a “whole world of sorrows.” As he makes his way towards death, the production lost some of its cohesion for me.
The next piece he sings, “The fisher maiden,” was too literal. The nurses strip off their uniforms and become these hearty fisher maidens rowing their boats. He wants to talk with them of love. And maybe in the abstract his constant desire for women is easier to digest than him calling to these specific women. I thought for a moment, I know you are dying but also you’re horny? Is this the time? I perhaps hit my personal limit on German man longing which is a frequent theme of the evening.
When the time comes for him to face his mortality, he walks towards a spotlight light as the large garage doors of the Armory open to the street. This is not the first time I have seen this choice in the space so it lost some power of originality. But lighting the large clock on the wall of the Armory and building the sound so it was both a thumping heartbeat and ticking clock worked incredibly well.
Once the street door was open, the sounds of sirens in the distance left me wondering for a moment if they were part of the show or not.
But there was an awkwardness of Kaufmann walking out and then having to come back in. He needs to get his Doppelganger! And so walking towards the light gets un peu de goofy, because they then have to turn around and walk back into the theater (no one is taking bows from the sidewalk).
I want the impossible. I want the actor who walks out of the theater never to return so that the audience is left with the actual loss. But not many take this kind of risk. Also, here, there was more show to the show!
So, there’s a little messy dramaturgical death in what is otherwise a rich, sharp production.