When Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and an occasional pianist, proposed teaming up for Franz Schubert’s 70-minute Winterreise (Winter Journey), the mezzo-soprano superstar Joyce DiDonato had her doubts. Each of the cycle’s 24 songs is in its own way a station on a jilted lover’s descent into alienation. Again and again, he finds his state of mind reflected in images of wintry desolation: a weathervane whipped around in the wind, one last leaf trembling on a branch, a crow winging overhead. Not once does the poet Wilhelm Müller—a minor romantic who but for Schubert would be forgotten—abandon the wayfarer’s point of view. But what went wrong with his love affair? The wanderer never says, nor does he describe the heartbreaker he’d hoped to marry.
“To get straight to the point, this is no material for a woman.” Yes, I wrote those words in The New York Times 29 years ago. In those days the assessment wasn’t especially controversial. Now, with culture wars raging over gender and diversity, representation and appropriation, it’s anathema. For the record, of the hundreds of interpretations currently available on CD or to stream, at least a dozen are by women—singers illustrious and unknown, long gone and contemporary. According to the research of the musicologist Janet I. Wasserman, that selection barely scratches the surface.
From Handel’s Ariodante and Mozart’s Cherubino to Bellini’s Romeo and Strauss’s Octavian, DiDonato has embraced her manly side many times over. But that was in the opera house, flying the flag of entrenched operatic convention. Exploring Winterreise, she found herself identifying not with the singer of the songs but with the nonentity who never appears. “Well, what about the girl?” she says she asked herself. “What’s her story?” That female phantom, not the male wayfarer, is the character DiDonato has decided to play.
DiDonato found herself identifying not with the singer but with the nonentity who never appears.
I can’t help thinking of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s runaway best-seller of a half-century earlier, its suicidal hero another winter wayfarer who loved and lost. The novel, cast almost entirely in Werther’s letters to a friend, tells of his obsession with the agonized Charlotte, who cannot bring herself to break the promise she made to her dying mother to marry another man. How easy it is to imagine her guiltily obsessing over his correspondence after he is gone—especially after DiDonato’s wrenching portrayal of Charlotte in the operatic Werther of Massenet.
Last December, DiDonato gave her maiden Winterreise in her native Kansas City, to raves from the home team. To help anchor her phantom character in a palpable reality, she came onstage with a book in hand—no, not the music but a prop. A screen was set up for supertitles, and before the music began, one line of explanation appeared: “I received his journal in the post.”
Bearing in mind this framing device, it seems that DiDonato herself still finds an unrefracted Winterreise a reach too far for a woman. On December 15, connoisseurs in the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall will draw their own conclusions. Those who then crave a no-frills Winterreise, conceived from the inside out, can book an almost-instant replay in the intimate confines of Zankel Hall on January 31, when Peter Mattei, a Swedish baritone of scorching authenticity, takes up Schubert and Müller’s challenge, accompanied by Lars David Nilsson. —Matthew Gurewitsch