The audience is split in two, each side facing the other like twin opposing armies. A military hospital occupies the no-man’s-land between, stretching nearly a city block in the enormity of the drill hall at Park Avenue Armory. Uniformed nurses usher soldiers to their convalescence, marching in lockstep through the 9×7 grid of beds. The occupants of those beds writhe in response to the echoes of war. A bass note drones underneath, as if from some unseen church organ, while pianist Helmut Deutsch sits at a Steinway grand in the center of the hall, occasionally tapping out a heartbeat on the piano frame. This is the striking first impression made by Doppelganger, the ambitious and arresting new staging of Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang song cycle from director Claus Guth, starring world-renowned tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
Schwanengesang (or “swan song”) was never meant to convey a singular narrative, and the title itself is an invention of Schubert’s music publisher, hoping to cash in on the composer’s death at the age of 31. It seems doubtful that Schubert ever intended this collection of songs (the first half settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab, the second half by Heinrich Heine) to appear together. And yet, Guth has successfully marshalled the songs into a cohesive story about one man among multitudes, living and dying in a time of unprecedented carnage. All those meadows and streams our protagonist sings about as he contemplates his love and sorrow? They’re battlefields.
As our wounded soldier, Kaufmann rises from bed to sing about his comrades in repose in this place where “the heart feels utterly alone” (“Kriegers Ahnung”), and his intention to return to his beloved (“Liebesbotschaft”). He reflects on the pain that befalls those who journey abroad (“In der Ferne”), something he did not anticipate when he first left for war and bid a happy farewell to his small town (“Abschied”). But his harrowing stint in the trenches (“Der Atlas”) makes him long for simpler times and gentle embraces (“Das Fischermädchen”). And finally, out of the darkness of the city (“Die Stadt”) he encounters a figure that looks eerily like himself (“Der Doppelgänger”). Is this how it ends?
Kaufmann makes a compelling protagonist in this soldier’s tale, simultaneously a cog and the machine yet visibly and aurally distinct. The 54-year-old is significantly older than the other 22 soldiers in this ward (which made me think of the veteran volunteers fighting in Ukraine) and his voice is unparalleled in its expressive capacity. Kaufmann seems to yawn through his gossamer high notes, delivering a tonality that is miraculously both resonant and verklempt. Every note is pregnant with emotion, making Kaufmann the ideal leading man for a project like this, and one of the greatest interpreters of lieder since Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
He has an unwavering ally in Deutsch, a longtime collaborator whose no-frills presentation keeps the spotlight on the vocalist. Still, it was lovely to enjoy his dreamy interpretation of the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, which is used here as an interlude between the Rellstab and Heine songs. The entire cast gathers around the piano for 9 minutes, seemingly entranced alongside the audience.
Guth has taken some liberties with the order of songs, but they’re all there spare “Die Taubenpost,” the inclusion of which always felt like an afterthought or encore (the 90-minute show is sung in German with English supertitles). Mathis Nitschke augments the evening with original music and sound composition, which lends a modern, unsettling vibe to the event without detracting from Schubert. Mark Grey’s sound design similarly gives primacy to the music, but elegantly underscores it with the sounds of war. It’s a perfect balance for a show that is rooted in a well-known collection of songs yet is so much more than a recital.
Guth captures the industrial nature of 20th century warfare through Michael Levine’s pristine, symmetrical set design, which uses the full immensity of the drill hall to jaw-dropping effect. Constance Hoffmann’s costumes (suspenders on tan uniforms for the men, the nurses in white with red crosses) instantly place us in World War I. A bar of light follows the phalanx of nurses as they scan the room (immaculately precise lighting by Urs Schönebaum). This antiseptic order begins to break down as memory overtakes the stage like a vining weed, and beds become barricades, fishing boats, and coffins. The shadow of a bomber (chilling video design by rocafilm) passes over the stage and the bodies hit the floor.
Memory first enters Doppelganger through Sommer Ulrickson’s simple and evocative choreography. The soldiers jolt forward, responding to some phantom trauma, as the nurses calmly, mechanically push them back into a supine position. They crawl forward through trenches and practice moving in formation, as generations of soldiers would have done in that very room long ago.
Supported by world-class design and musicality, and with a strong appreciation of peculiarities of the venue, Doppelganger is awesome experimental theater on a grand scale. Classical music purists may bristle at the overlaying of narrative on a song cycle that wasn’t written for this purpose, but Guth thrillingly reveals the theatrical potential in Schubert’s songs and the universal emotions they express. There’s really nothing like it in New York right now.