“A symphony must be like the world. It must encompass everything.” In which case, Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde surely qualifies as one. The question on my mind while watching the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra’s unique presentation, staged by experimental directors Yuval Sharon and Juan Carlos Zagal with multimedia integration by Teatrocinema, was what was Mahler’s masterpiece lacking?

Gustavo Dudamel
© Vern Evans

Before getting to that issue, let’s make plain how extraordinary the musical forces were in this performance. It is hard to imagine two more vocally ideal and dramatically adept singers in this music today than Russell Thomas and Tamara Mumford. I first saw both singers in John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary. There, they were both outstanding in vocally relentless parts and they were just as brilliant in Mahler’s demanding work. Both tenor and mezzo parts are notoriously difficult in range, expression and duration. Thomas and Mumford excelled in all areas. 

Thomas sang the stentorian parts with a thrilling tenor that almost always equaled the volume of Dudamel’s exuberant band. It is an acrobatic part and Thomas hit all the marks with thrilling high notes and impressive line. There is little room for dynamic nuance in the part and where there was, Thomas opted for vocal heft instead with thrilling results.  

Mumford’s mezzo voice is something of a throwback. With its rapid vibrato, resonant chest voice and expressivity, it is a unique instrument (almost contralto) that is uniquely suited to this music. And with that instrument comes an artistic package that is mesmerizing. The nuance Mumford brought to the text and the expressivity by which she deployed it in her voice made for a versatile performance throughout the three very different mezzo movements. 

The singing was only half of their artistic efforts. The other half was what was required by directors Yuval Sharon and Juan Carlos Zavala along with the Teatrocinema team. The singers performed in a sort of black box stage perched behind the orchestra in the choral risers. The opening had layers of scrim on which images were projected, overlaying the singers. The effect was one of an interactive presentation with the multimedia providing the most action while the singers appeared suspended inside it.

It’s an intriguing technique that resulted in some amusing visual effects. In returning to the aforementioned question, what was Mahler’s piece missing that this presentation could provide? Multimedia and classical music have been combined before with outstanding results. For me, Peter Sellars’ and Bill Viola’s Tristan Project is still one of my top evenings at the theater. But returning to Mahler’s ubiquitous quote and listening to Das Lied gives us the answer to my question. The music contains what the listener needs dramatically. The responses to the singer, the action, are all there in the orchestra. Has there been a more thorough symphonic dramatist than Mahler?

The multimedia vacillated between a literal and a symbolic portrayal of the text. The visuals were most successful when dazzling the audience with moving images portraying a walk in nature as in Der Einsame im Herbst. Other more metaphoric images such as a floating ship resembling the body of a cello with a literal Gustav Mahler as the bowsprit were less convincing. Der Abschied, the final, long movement, combined both literal and metaphorical imagery, with both the nature images and musical instrument images from prior movements. But Mahler’s music and the existentially vital texts are so well married, that any literal visual narrative seems superfluous to the listener, rather than complimentary. Any metaphoric visual seems imposing, rather than suggestive. 

Dudamel led the LA Phil in an assured reading, sounding notably in control in the drinking songs and pliantly tender in the more sparse orchestral openings of the second and third movements. Dudamel saved his most profound moments for the interlude in Der Abschied. Here, Dudamel let it all go. It was raw, searing, betrayed and devastating, with horns blaring and all players reaching for another level of volume and color. It was during this interlude where the visuals virtually came to a halt and a spotlight shone on the conductor’s podium. It was a welcome respite, without distraction, as if to say, “look here”.