Review: 'Zauberland' Pairs Schumann With a Syrian Refugee

NEW YORK — When composer Bernard Foccroulle approached soprano Julia Bullock about the project that became “Zauberland,” she felt some initial trepidation. With Martin Crimp, Foccroulle had written 19 songs about a pregnant Syrian refugee who leaves her husband and family in Aleppo for a new life in Germany. And the new music would be woven into Schumann’s 1840 song cycle “Dichterliebe.”

Review: 'Zauberland' Pairs Schumann With a Syrian Refugee

“It’s not made clear why this woman is singing Schumann, or how that is linked to the rest of the material,” Bullock said in an interview on the Lincoln Center website. But this risk-taking artist has an impressive record of embracing new projects that enable her to “educate herself,” as she has said, and to take audiences along on the ride.

“Zauberland” had its New York premiere Tuesday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, presented by Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. At the end of this 80-minute show — featuring Bullock, pianist Cédric Tiberghien and four silent actors, in a staging by Katie Mitchell — it was still not clear why the protagonist keeps shifting between Schumann’s songs and the new ones.

Yet that dreamlike ambiguity is the most compelling element of “Zauberland,” an intense and thoughtful, though frustrating, work. It opens with Bullock and Tiberghien commencing what seems a traditional performance of “Dichterliebe.” Soon Bullock’s singer is accosted by two male actors, who blindfold her, tear off the outer layer of her concert dress, prod and beseech her, and lay her on a wood bed.

Singing a lieder recital, with its confining protocols, can seem rarefied. “Dichterliebe,” Schumann’s settings of Heine poems about the unrequited and bitter love of a young man, is at once a timeless exploration of longing and a poetic sojourn far from the roiling issues of the contemporary world. Is the character of the singer someone with a social conscious whose thoughts drift to the plight of refugees?

After the first few Schumann songs, the first new one is heard: “Ah—dead—even so.” Then, “Dichterliebe” continues, followed by another grim, restless Foccroulle song, “I walk in the dark to a tree,” which tells of ominous men in black suits who lay down a woman in wedding clothes and spread her hair out in a “ring of flames.” Foccroulle’s musical language deftly combines elements of 12-tone writing, skittish pointillist piano riffs, sonorities that recall Messiaen and milky Impressionist textures. Boulez’s astringent yet sensual music seems a model.

The identities of the Schumann singer and the Syrian refugee begin to blur. Schumann’s protagonist sings of a “magical land” (“Zauberland,” in German) where one’s heart could be free and full of joy. And the refugee longs not just for a new homeland, but also for intimate connection with a lover. Still, the show loses its dramatic thread, especially during the overextended final segment devoted to 17 of Mr. Foccroulle’s songs — which, for all the music’s intricacy, become inflated.

Much of “Zauberland” is good; the creators should bring focus to the material and get it right. And Bullock’s performance was extraordinary. “This is who we’ve been waiting for,” director Peter Sellars recently told The New York Times. Indeed, as her dedication to this worthy project made clear.

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