Staging Schubert's late song cycle "Winterreise" (Winter Journey), a poignant chronicle of a lovesick youth's journey toward death, isn't a wildly new idea. Tenor Ian Bostridge and director David Alden created a dramatization for the BBC's Channel 4 in 1997. Soprano Jessye Norman appeared in a Robert Wilson production in Paris three years later. British baritone Simon Keenlyside sang and even danced alongside the Trisha Brown Ensemble in a version seen in New York in 2002.
But nobody seems to have thought of combining Schubert's dark songs with excerpts from Goethe's seminal 1774 novella, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," until Long Beach Opera general director Andreas Mitisek. His new staging, with efficient, uncluttered set pieces by Alan E. Muraoka, period costumes by Jeannique Prospere and dramatic lighting by Heather Carson, opened Saturday at the tiny Edison Theatre in downtown Long Beach.
The juxtaposition of the titans worked well. Goethe's semiautobiographical, epistolary short novel tells a similar story of a young man's unhappy love leading to suicide.
Acted excerpts spoken in English by baritone Erik Nelson Werner framed and linked in a credible sequence the 24 songs he sang in German, even though Wilhelm Muller's poems tell less of a story than embody psychological states. Translations were projected at the sides of the stage.
Werner had strength, stamina and good looks going for him. His dark-toned baritone was focused and spot on.
Like many young singers, his speaking voice isn't equally powerfully supported, and he has yet to plumb the songs' profundities. He tended to sing whole lines rather than explore textual nuances. But close collaboration between singer and musician would have been difficult given his distance from pianist Michelle Schumann.
Schumann, also in period dress, played behind a scrim at the back of the stage. There was a magical moment when she was lighted so that the audience could see her as Werther recalled Lotte, his beloved, at the piano. But otherwise, solid as she was, Schumann offered only efficient accompaniment.
Jennifer Hart Jackson, a former member of Diavolo Dance Theater, sustained the mute duties of Lotte with dignity, even though she was required to lie in bed like a corpse through most of the first half.
Later, she walked slowly around Werther's bedroom, reading his journal and discarded letters and powerfully registering her realization of his feelings for her.
Mitisek conceived the action as a flashback after Werther's suicide. When we first see him, he has a bloodstain on his chest. This causes some confusion. Is he a ghost when he sings his first song with Lotte cuddled on his lap and then carries her to his bed, or is he fantasizing? But where, and when? Fortunately, these narrative questions soon fade under the growing strength of the performance.
Where: Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
Contact: (562) 985-7000 or www.carpenterarts.org