Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Winterreise. Adrianne Pieczonka sings Schubert's dark cycle, with Brian Zeger accompanying.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sings Schubert’s Winterreise, accompanied by Brian Zeger, this Sunday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. Johannes Ifkovits photograph

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sings Schubert’s Winterreise, accompanied by Brian Zeger, this Sunday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. Johannes Ifkovits photograph

Not every winter’s journey involves a jolly man magically delivering toys the world over. 

Schubert’s riveting “Winterreise,” the dark song-cycle that details a rootless wanderer, fixated on lost love and death, examines in operatic scope an enigmatic voyage toward an uncertain climax.

The cycle, composed just before Schubert’s death, forms one of the great challenges for any singer, given its concert length and dramatic demands. Normally sung by a tenor voice, this Sunday Rockport Music presents soprano Adrianne Pieczonka interpreting the work, joined by her long-time accompanist, pianist Brian Zeger. 

Although the cycle certainly seems to pivot around a male protagonist, Schubert himself thought the work could be sung by other voices, and Zeger says “some of the songs are gendered, and some are not. The person is clearly male, but there is also a tradition of crossing genders. The real journey is spiritual.

“Adrianne brings this Rolls Royce voice,” he says, “a Wagner/Verdi voice. She’s so powerful—well, most singers like her can’t often scale down to a cycle like this. But she has that ability. She’s like Lotte Lenya, or Christa Ludwig—huge opera stars, but also fantastic recitalists.”

“Christa Ludwig was my favorite, for singing this cycle,” Pieczonka says. “She did it so beautifully, so calm and personal. It is true that the wanderer is a male. But in the telling, you can stretch it out. You just have to be haunted by the cycle.”

Pieczonka will be making her Massachusetts debut—a bit of a marvel, in that she has sung on all the great stages of the world for decades. Canadian-born, and now living again in Toronto after years in Europe, she has been focused on opera most of her career. 

“It’s what I’ve done,” she says, “perhaps 90 percent opera, and ten percent recitals. But just to walk out with Brian at the piano, and to follow this journey—it’s thrilling. It’s also terrifying, and rewarding.”

Many cycles—and most recitals—are showcases for the singer, with the piano pushed to the background in support. Not “Winterreise.”

“I’ve had the privilege of working on Schubert’s last three piano sonatas,” Zeger says. “Being immersed in late Schubert, it’s fascinating to look at the ‘Winterreise’ score. The sophistication in the writing—the piano is used in such a poetic and imaginative way. It’s hugely rewarding to prepare.”

“We are two equals,” Pieczonka affirms, “for these Lieder to work, we have to be absolute collaborators.”

Memorization of the challenging cycle presents difficulties—singers often use the score during performance. Pieczonka doesn’t: “I’d rather just accept a text slip, than have the music stand out there,” she says. “I think it’s a barrier to communication.” 

She usually doesn’t talk to the audience beforehand about the work either. “We just start right in,” she says. “I know there are some singers who like to tell stories—Joyce DiDonato is really good at it. I don’t, especially not with this cycle. I’m old school.”

“Adrianne is such a deep artist,” Zeger says. “And her voice—she fills the Met, and so many other opera houses. She probes the songs, and has the ability to express text thoughtfully. It’s so unusual to have that, and to have this powerful voice.”

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and pianist Brian Zeger perform Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 3:00 p.m. in the Shalin Liu Performance Center, a presentation of Rockport Music. For tickets and information visit www.rockportmusic.org or call 978-546-7391.

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