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Review | Opera News: "Savage Winter"

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FRANZ SCHUBERT'S monumental song cycle Winterreise, a treasured masterpiece in its own right, has served as a wellspring for creative reimaginings by a variety of composers, singers and theatrical directors. Franz Liszt transcribed half of the cycle into virtuoso piano works. In the early twentieth century, Leopold Godowsky similarly transcribed the first song from the cycle, along with various other Schubert lieder. But in the past twenty-five years, a plethora of Winterreise-inspired rearrangements and fully new compositions have come into being. One such work is Douglas J. Cuomo’s Savage Winter, which received its world-premiere performances in November at BAM Fisher (seen Nov. 7).

Schubert’s Winterreise was based on a collection of poems by Wilhelm Müller that describe a solitary winter journey made on foot by an unnamed traveler. To this day, the bleak, lonely despair and bitterness of the poetry continues to haunt readers and listeners. Cuomo used Müller’s poetry as a creative springboard into a new cycle of music for Savage Winter. He created his own translations and updates, setting some of the poems quite literally, taking liberties with others and, in a couple of cases, leaving the texts unset, replacing song with instrumental numbers. All of the music is original, and the only number that in any way pays homage to Schubert is the final song, “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man). Cuomo’s protagonist’s journey takes place in a claustrophobic motel room, bestrewn with half-empty whiskey bottles and the detritus of many empty bags, boxes and wrappers from snacks and junk food. Clearly, we catch the journey as it nears a moment of crisis, watching the nearly naked man spiral further and further into hopelessness, delirium and madness. Cuomo’s music is varied and very effective. It was interesting and enjoyable to hear what new musical ideas he attached to these old and highly familiar texts. Much of this music favors a unique blend of rock, jazz and contemporary classical elements, with an unusual instrumental combination and evocative electronics. It can be quite jarring and unsettling or, as in the case of Cuomo’s treatment of “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree), gentle and accessible.

Tenor Tony Boutté gave a heroic performance of the Protagonist, going through an ocean of emotional states over the course of the twenty-four songs. He aroused genuine sympathy at certain moments, while at others his character was vile and disgusting. The music took him over a wide vocal and dramatic range, to which challenges Boutté continually rose and triumphed. 

Director Jonathan Moore showed perfect theatrical timing throughout, making great use of the entire stage. Brandon McNeel’s set design was appropriately depressing, and the video design of Joseph Seamans hit the right tones of severity, chilliness and desolation. The instrumental ensemble featured keyboardist/conductor Alan Johnson, trumpeter Frank London and composer Cuomo on guitar and electronic effects. Just as the piano in Schubert’s Winterreise is as much a character as the singer, so was the instrumental ensemble in Savage Winter. The interplay among Johnson, London and Cuomo in this score that requires a significant amount of improvisation was exciting to hear.

Given the raw, exhausting emotional quality of Savage Winter, it is very much to the credit of Cuomo and the entire creative team that this dark but important addition to the repertoire did not falter or become oppressive, retaining a spark of vitality despite its ambiguous, foreboding conclusion. —Arlo McKinnon


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