SCHUBERT'S DIE SCHÖNE MÜLLERIN / New Opera Singapore / Review

New Opera Singapore
The Chamber @ The Arts House
Thursday (20 December 2012)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 December 2012 with the title "Sing, don't dance".
Almost everyone knows the prohibitive costs of staging an opera, so New Opera Singapore has exercised the option of appropriating a Schubert song cycle for the basis of a production. Why not, as all good vocal music deserves champions, and it is vanity to split hairs over what talented young singers should or should not sing.
The concert began unusually with all the performers loitering on stage, looking on idly as the audience made their way to their seats. A classic case of role reversal but put into practice.
Franz Schubert composed no great operas, but his three major song cycles are matchless. Die Schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid Of The Mill), 20 songs set to poetry by Wilhelm Müller, was composed around 1823. It is not the bleakest of the three but in certain ways is the saddest. The predictable plot of young love cruelly unrequited does not end in aimless wandering, as in the darker Winterreise (Winter Journey), but instead in suicide.
Five male singers, three tenors and two baritones, undertook the task of musical story-telling. Tenor David Charles Tay was the very able narrator, guiding listeners to the action and the protagonist’s ever-shifting moods. Transliterations in English were helpfully provided, and there was to be no excuse for not knowing what was going on.
Shaun Lee (left) and Lim Jingjie (right) opened the song cycle.

The younger and less experienced singers took on the earlier and less gloomy songs. Tenor Shaun Lee opened the cycle with Das Wandern (Wandering) in a hearty spirit, but his brash earnestness could have been served with better intonation for Mit dem Grünen Lautenbande (With The Green Ribbon). Baritone Lim Jingjie, who sang three songs including Wohin?(Whither?)  and Danksagung an den Bach (Thanksgiving to the Brook), has yet to attain the gravitas and experience to be truly convincing.
Baritone Jeremy Koh (above), armed with superior pronunciation and intonation, made a good case for the contrasting emotions of Ungeduld(Impatience), Tränenregen (Rain of Tears) and Mein (Mine), and the cycle was taking on a definitive direction and shape. It was little surprise that the final five songs, the emotional core, climax and denouement of the cycle, were shared by Tay and his twin brother Jonathan Charles Tay who as relative veterans both stole the show.
David Charles Tay was the excellent narrator, as well as sang five of the songs.

The paired songs on greenery, Die liebe Farbe (Favourite Colour) and Die böse Farbe (Hateful Colour), were wonderfully delineated as hope rapidly turned into despair. The cycle’s greatest items, Trockne Blumen (Withered Flowers) and Der Müller und der Bach (The Miller and the Brook), from David and Jonathan respectively, were coloured with a shuddering vividness and ultimately beauty beyond mere words.
David's twin brother, Jonathan Charles Tay was not to be outdone in his five songs.
The final song Des Baches Wiegenlied (The Brook’s Lullaby), gentle but an immovable force, rang like a requiem with ever-steady chords from pianist Albert Lin, who as a collaborator was a tower of strength throughout.
Do the dancers - good as they were - add anything more to Schubert's wonderful music? 

Last and least, some of the songs were choreographed, with dancers Kenneth Tan and Koustav Basu Mallick playing the miller and the brook respectively. In this case, the dancing – however artistic - was a needless distraction and more became less. Schubert’s song settings provide endless stimulus on their own and will succeed without extraneous help.    
Albert Lin (2nd from left) was the perfect collaborator in the 20 songs sung. All the singers take a final bow.