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Theatre Review (LA): Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music by Migenes and Calvario at the Odyssey Theatre

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Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music is, for me, a rather botched attempt to link Schubert’s mood as reflected in his letters with the German lieder he composed in his relatively brief lifetime. The motivation and idea for the show make sense; after all, Schubert was not appreciated by his contemporaries, never really got a permanent job, and died at the age of 31 from complications from syphilis. It took later composers like Liszt, Schumann, and Mendelssohn to rescue his reputation.

Today he is considered one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition. Schubert wrote some 600 lieder (or songs), nine symphonies, and some opera, liturgical music, and solo piano music. Internationally known diva Julia Migenes has put together an evening of songs and letters at the Odyssey Theatre.

The performances of the songs are glorious, as can be expected from an artist of the stature of Ms. Migenes. Now, lieder are an acquired taste at best, though for aficionados the musical skill required to sing lieder and the dramatic (or comic) ability to put over an evening of them is reason enough to rush to the theatre. Unfortunately, the attempt to marry the letters and the music fails miserably.

Perhaps if the letters were simply read (who acts out their own letters?) instead of done with over-the-top gusto by the actor Jeff Marlow they might have worked better. But in this show, conceived by Ms. Migenes and Phillipe Calvario, Marlow attempts to deliver them as if they were from someone who wrote great letters. Schubert’s letters, however, are dull, mostly pleading for money from his brother or outlining his illness. It doesn’t help that Marlow is basically a comic actor (judging from his very good work at the Falcon). He may look like Schubert but he also looks like a handsomer version of Mr. Bean. He has an amusing face.

Interspersed with these letters are the lieder themselves. There is a translation in the program but they are sung in German, they way they were written, remaining totally incomprehensible to the average American theatregoer. Ms. Migenes acts and sings the socks off of these truly wonderful pieces, but when combined with the needlessly over-dramatized letters they lose their punch. Now, if you like lieder and the idea of witnessing a diva up close and personal, this might be the show for you. Otherwise skip it.

Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music plays at the Odyssey Theatre until Aug 23rd.

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