The plot of Winterreise, the 24-chapter Franz Schubert song cycle composed in 1828, was easier to grasp than the number of its constituent parts would suggest. In pithy terms, it's the story of a man who no longer feels at home in his town—or even his own skin—after his girlfriend leaves him.
It's the simplicity of the song cycle, which was performed with tremendous sophistication and depth by Opera Idaho and Lauren Edson Feb. 1 at the Egyptian Theatre, that gives it its strength. Schubert's simple but plainly expressive tunes set to the spare, dry poetry of Wilhelm Muller demanded an austere stage performance, led by baritone Jason Detwiler.
Playing the part of the scorned lover, Detwiler passed through two dozen stages of grief while shadowed by dancers Jason Hartley (a slightly shorter double for Detwiler), Libby Schmoeger and Sayoko Knode, a lithe apparition meant to recall the woman who haunts the lover's dreams. The performance was set to piano played by Steven Crawford.
All of this took place in front of a screen, on which played static, wintery images and subtitles to the German lyrics.
At first, the performance adhered to a lean expressive output: Hartley's restrained and inhibited movements reflected the chill of winter and the breakdown of the barrier between the lover's self and the world around him. Few things have the power to make a man question himself and his reality like a broken heart.
Knode's movements were extravagant, vivacious and full, because few things are as cruelly mocking to a man with a broken heart as the confidence and grace of memories of lost love.
Then came blunders. In one chapter, Detwiler stepped onto a prop box and out of his light, singing for minutes with his head and much of his torso obscured. In another ("Die Krahe" or "The Crow"), the previously tastefully unadorned Knode appeared on stage in a black crow costume reminiscent of those used in Trey McIntyre Project's "The Unkindness of Ravens."
Suddenly, the screen behind the dancers felt cluttered, chapters lost focus or blurred into one another. Interest flagged. It was as though, in Winterreise's planning stages, a room full of artists had filled a chalk board with ideas, agreed to incorporate only the choicest among them in the stage production—and then implemented all of the ideas anyway.
In the final assessment, Opera Idaho has pieced together a flawed but intellectually stimulating production of Winterreise that tenderly unwraps beautiful music, poetry and Romantic period German thought while examining complicated ideas, like where the self ends and the world outside begins, and how people deal with loss, mourning and hope.
Audiences have one more chance to see the performance for themselves on Sunday, Feb. 3, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $12-$40 and are available online.