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The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise review at the Barbican – ‘idiosyncratic yet powerful’

Ian Bostridge in The Dark Mirror at Barbican Theatre, London. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Ian Bostridge in The Dark Mirror at Barbican Theatre, London. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
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Written a year before the composer’s death at the age of 31, Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) is often described as the greatest of all song cycles.

Conveying the tragic narrative of a young man rejected in love who wanders alone through a wintry landscape while his sense of alienation becomes ever stronger and his grip on reality ever weaker, the set of 24 songs has been one of the centrepieces of tenor Ian Bostridge’s repertoire for nearly 30 years.

Here he performs it in a 1993 orchestration by the contemporary German composer Hans Zender and in a staging by Netia Jones that incorporates visual elements from a film directed by David Alden for Channel 4 in 2007.

Taken as a whole, The Dark Mirror is a suitably hard-hitting experience. Bostridge’s voice may be a controversial and in some respects limited instrument, lacking the ideal lyricism and richness of colour possessed by the greatest of Schubert interpreters, yet his knowledge of and expertise in this particular piece – on which he published a substantial volume two years ago – is outstanding, and at his best there is no gainsaying the expressive impact of his performance.

Zender’s approach is interventionist, not merely expanding Schubert’s piano accompaniment to an orchestra of some 20 players – here the Britten Sinfonia, expertly conducted by Baldur Bronnimann – but complicating it with additions, rewrites and contradictions that give it a distinctly modern feel.

Jones’ visualisation is monochrome in tone but wide-ranging in mood and imagery, referencing during its traversal of barren, snowbound woods and fields both Expressionism and the cabaret of the Weimar period: in his evening wear Bostridge sometimes looks like a refugee Emcee mislaid from a production of Cabaret.

Like his vocalism, the tenor’s acting skills are idiosyncratic yet intermittently powerful. The result is an uneven 90 minutes, but at best it achieves moments of genuine greatness.

Verdict
Ian Bostridge stars in an imaginative but uneven staging of Schubert’s Winter Journey
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