For my money, there is no more arresting singer in the world today than Matthias Goerne: the German baritone I first discovered as Jesus in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which he performs seemingly at the edge of sanity. And, it is impossible not to be moved by the work of William Kentridge, the South African illustrator whose films not only fill museums and galleries, but have provided stunning backdrops for both opera and concert music.
But some ideas work better on paper than in execution, and Tuesday's performance of Schubert's somber song cycle Winterreise - which closed this year's edition of the White Light Festival - didn't gel in the way one would expect of such accomplished artists. Winterreise is set to texts by the German poet William Müller, tracing the psychedelic wanderings of a man who has been jilted by his lover. Bitter and despairing, he leaves her house and wanders a snowy path by the river where they once spent time together. His tears freeze on his face. A crow circles ominously above. In the end, he encounters a man playing a hurdy-gurdy and asks if he can go along with him.
When he was commissioned last summer by the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Kentridge didn't create an original film for Winterreise, but rather threw together a pastiche of his prior work from the past two decades. With one or two accidental exceptions, the films he chose had no connection to the songs they accompanied. Although Kentridge says this was a deliberate choice - he says he wanted to "escape the tyranny of meaning" - in the end they were little more than an irritating distraction. Indeed, Kentridge seemed more focused on childhood memories of listening to recordings of Winterreise in Johannesburg than in illuminating Schubert and Müller's masterpiece.
During curtain calls, both men were visibly drenched in sweat - primarily from their exertion, but also, ironically, from the heat of Kentridge's projections, which we all could have done without. Perhaps for his next project, Kentridge should choose a work a bit closer to home: after all, there's no snow in South Africa.