In any new orchestration of a work, the arrangement has to reveal in its reimagining a reward, an uncovered gem that gleams when it’s the pluck of a harp, not the breath of a flute, floating across the hall. On Saturday night, Mercury premiered a new orchestration of Franz Schubert’s beloved song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (originally scored for solo voice and piano) as a small opera, and, though tenor Nicholas Phan delivered a winsome performance, the prize of its reconfiguration never quite surfaced.
Mercury’s artistic director and conductor Antoine Plante arranged the song cycle for tenor and Mercury’s chamber ensemble, which performs on period instruments and produces an unadjusted intonation and distinct timbre true to a centuries-past history. Playing period instruments is an art form unto itself, but it is a very specific form. In any arrangement of Die Schöne Müllerin, it’s hard to surpass the crisp purity of the original piano, which rings and glistens across steady eighth- and sixteenth-note patterns to turn the millstream into a character all its own. The organic tone of period instruments, while exquisite in other settings, just isn’t suited to the task.
Visually, there wasn’t much more of a story to tell, although over the course of 20 songs, Die Schöne Müllerin unravels a rich and universally relatable tale of unrequited love, jealousy, and heartbreak—something well-suited for opera. Staged and directed by Denis Plante, this story was dramatically embodied in a simple, contemporary outdoor setting: an REI camping tent stage left and a backdrop of laundry lines weighed down by sheets. Phan wore hiking books, a plain t-shirt and pants. As the songs cycled, the lighting shifted to match. During “Die liebe Farbe,” a bright Saint Patrick’s Day green lent an overdetermined hue to the repeating line, “My love is so fond of green…green, everything green, all around.”
Plante’s staging also features an actor, Asia Kreitz, in the silent role of the miller’s daughter. After short bout of fishing, Kreitz walked elegantly but aimlessly around and behind Phan. For a story about falling in and out of love, it was peculiar that the two figures on either side of the equation had no relationship until the last few songs, when Phan and Kreitz sat next to each other and made eye contact.
Singing with express passion and dynamics that flowed through meaty fortes and ebbed to exquisitely soft levels, Phan was the winning piece of this performance—and he would have been in any arrangement. In Houston alone, he has proven to be a master of both chamber music and love songs ranging from John Dowland’s Elizabethan era odes to Reynaldo Hahn’s Parisian salon ardors. He’s also no stranger to dramatic re-imaginings, such as a musical adaptation of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume reverie In Search of Lost Time (which also sports actors alongside soloists in what are, at times, odd narrative configurations). He savored every lyric and phrase that makes Die Schöne Müllerin such an audience favorite with sincerity and lavish technique. But as I listened, I never stopped wishing he were just standing by a piano.