This new collaborative work from Katie Mitchell is hard to define. The title, ‘Magic Land’ in English, comes from the text of one of Schumann’s songs and it takes as its basis his song-cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love).
This is performed by US soprano and community activist Julia Bullock with the distinguished French pianist Cédric Tiberghien as her accompanist, initially in a standard concert setting. But two things interrupt and complicate the recital. Actors intervene, and together with Bullock turn the cycle into a piece of theatre representing, in vignettes, the troubling trajectory of an opera singer who has been forced to leave Syria and who eventually settles in Cologne.
She dreams of singing Schumann’s piece while remembering the trauma of her background and her journey; some of the representational scenes – as one might well imagine – are painful to watch.
The Schumann songs are also interspersed with new ones by Belgian composer Bernard Foccroulle using texts by Martin Crimp in which the woman relates memories of her past. Foccroulle’s songs refer only obliquely to Schumann’s cycle – an archetypal piece of German Romanticism dealing with rejected love.
While individual sections make an impact – referring to family memories, the death of her husband, flight from danger, and even episodes of violence, rape and torture – the larger picture obstinately refuses to come into focus.
The musical standards are high. Foccroulle’s settings, though long, match Schumann’s in sensitivity, while Bullock gives her all at the centre of a work that speaks for countless people in Europe and beyond its borders whose voices go unheard.