Cuomo’s “Savage Winter” retools “Winterreise” for an American storm

Thu Nov 08, 2018 at 12:56 pm
Tony Boutté in Douglas Cuomo's "Savage Winter" at BAM Fisher. Photo: Max Gordon

Tony Boutté in Douglas J. Cuomo’s “Savage Winter” at BAM Fisher. Photo: Max Gordon

Winterreise provides endless rewards to artists. Schubert’s masterful cycle seems to withstand innumerable performances and recordings, and has served as inspiration for books, films, and more. Hans Zender’s 1993 chamber version enjoyed a successful run at the Mostly Mozart Festival a few summers ago.

Savage Winter, a seventy-minute musical monodrama presented in its New York premiere at BAM Fisher on Wednesday, is the latest of Winterreise’s many children. But unlike Zender’s starkly modernist retooling, there’s hardly a trace of Schubert to be found in the new work by Douglas J. Cuomo. Savage Winter returns to the poems by Wilhelm Müller and fashions out of them an original work that is sometimes searing, sometimes glib, but never dull.

We find the Protagonist, the nameless wanderer of the poems, in a kind of frozen snapshot of his journey, stripped down to his underwear in a motel room that he has completely trashed in a drunken rage. The set itself is highly realistic, a naturalistic canvas to which director Jonathan Moore adds psychedelic or supernatural visual cues, reflecting the man’s mental turmoil. The “Dream of Spring” (“Frühlingstraum” in Müller’s original) is manifested as a video of blooming flowers projected onto the walls alongside disturbing images of rats and what seemed to be a close-up of a pulsing wound. In “Der stürmische Morgen,” the dark cloud that has been floating lazily in the window turns suddenly scarlet, and leaks inside to cover all the walls.

Tony Boutté gave a strong performance as the Protagonist in Wednesday’s performance, relying more on dramatic investment than on the resources of his lean tenor. Though switching often between manic and depressive registers, he maintained a captivating presence throughout. The most unsettling contrast came when he moved from the weariness and confusion of “The Inn” (“Das Wirtshaus”) into the disturbing high of “Courage” (“Mut!”). This was one of the most effective dramatic moments of the piece, showing touches of both silliness and pathos, as he waved his torn pillow around in the air, blanketing the room in a shower of feathers.

Too often, director Moore has Boutté engage in physical bits of stage business at the cycle’s intense moments, yet those moments failed to come off, reined in as they were for logistical reasons. At one point he threw his cell phone (which itself becomes kind of a crutch, as he periodically punches text messages to his estranged lover) at the bed, but had to do so carefully, lest it bounce off the mattress and go sailing into the audience. There were a number of moments like this one, where the director committed Boutté to an action that he could not perform safely in the small venue, rather than exploring an alternative.

The text, adapted by Cuomo himself, is for the most part a relatively faithful English translation of Müller’s poems, though some of the songs are altered or truncated and a few are represented only by an instrumental interlude. 

As for Cuomo’s music, it defies easy categorization. For Savage Winter, he combines material from a variety of sources, using recorded and looped sounds alongside music for piano, trumpet, and electric guitar (played by the composer himself); Alan Johnson did admirable work in keeping the three-man backstage band tight, conducting from the piano. Cuomo is all over the map in terms of style: in one brief interlude, Frank London improvises a haunting trumpet solo over a dubstep-like beat while the Protagonist dances amid colorful disco lights. Immediately following is Cuomo’s surprisingly twee take on “Der Lindenbaum,” here a coffee-shop Indie song for voice and guitar.

His best work, though, is dark and penetrating. The only explicit quotation of Schubert comes in the final song, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Player,” where the chilly motifs of “Der Leiermann” echo under the haunting vocal line. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the most musically convincing portion of the work was the one in which Cuomo fully embraced his source of inspiration.

To a listener intimately familiar with Winterreise, for whom Müller’s verse and Schubert’s music are practically inseparable, just the experience of hearing an entirely new take on these texts (adapted though they may be) is fascinating. Each moment in Cuomo’s cycle tracks to its analogue in Schubert’s, and a mental comparison is unavoidable: where Schubert’s setting of “Einsamkeit” conveys the deep emptiness of solitude, Cuomo’s “Loneliness” focuses on the aspect of terror, preceding the song with a loud knocking that sends the Man scurrying to bolt the door. It’s tough to say whether someone encountering this work without that context would be able to follow Cuomo’s configuration, or be bewildered without the benefit of that point of reference.

Savage Winter will be repeated 7:30 p.m. through Saturday at BAM Fisher.

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