The attraction of Zauberland, the latest production at the Linbury, was the sheer eclecticism of its ingredients: Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a narrative about Syrian refugees that could not be more topical, two top quality performers now fully fledged from their “young musician” status and the creative forces of Bernard Foccroulle, Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell, co-conspirators with George Benjamin in Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence, two of the most successful operas of recent years – in this case, Foccroulle crossing the fence from impresario to composer. How would these disparate parts be knitted together?

Julia Bullock © Patrick Berger
Julia Bullock
© Patrick Berger

The musical components of the evening were a success, in spite of the Julia Bullock’s misfortune in having to sing through a fever. There was clearly some element of struggle, but Bullock’s sound technique and innate musicianship carried her through. She is a wonderfully versatile performer, switching between the German romanticism of Heine and Schumann and the angular English modernity of Crimp and Foccroulle without any apparent difficulty. This may not have been the last work in Lieder-singing polish, but that’s not what was called for: Bullock enunciated clearly enough and threw every ounce of emotion into both Heine’s exploration of the onset and loss of love and Crimp’s allusive texts which form the refugee narrative. In the circumstances, this was an admirable performance.

Cédric Tiberghien gave a smooth, cultured account of the piano part of Dichterliebe, giving Schumann’s music plenty of space to breath, contrasting its consistent form to the disparate fragments provided by Foccroulle to accompany the violent mood swings of the refugee experience. It’s not music that pleased everybody – I heard the term “plinky-plonk extravaganza” from an audience member on the way out – but as the evening continued, I became steadily more attuned to his sound world.

<i>Zauberland</i> © Patrick Berger
Zauberland
© Patrick Berger

In terms of narrative and drama, however, the evening left me cold and more than somewhat confused. For all that Dichterliebe is poetic and episodic, it has clear narrative flow: the poet starts to fall in love, glories in the joy of love and then despairs at its loss. Crimp’s text, however, as well as being highly allusive, goes well beyond episodic: it’s fragmented, continually shifting between different times and different places, as well as moving between dream and reality. Put quite simply, I had no idea what was going on for any period of time longer than a few bars. Were we in a dream? Were we in Syria? In a refugee camp somewhere? In Germany, the presumed “magic land” of the title? At any given moment, it took all my mental energy to figure it out, by which time things had moved on.

The basis of Mitchell’s staging is a familiar one from her previous work: three men, usually in suits and seen in profile, move across the stage from side to side carrying props and sometimes furniture, occasionally intervening to maltreat our heroine or to change her costume – the costume changes appearing to be sometimes voluntary, sometimes not. They take on various roles: Islamic State goons, border police, NGO volunteers, our heroine’s dead lover/husband. A female actor appears in various guises, often in a wedding dress, sometimes as our heroine’s daughter.

<i>Zauberland</i> © Patrick Berger
Zauberland
© Patrick Berger

I’m quite sure that at each point in Zauberland, Crimp, Mitchell and the performers know exactly who they’re supposed to be representing, what is the intent of the words and what is the setting in time, place and dream/reality. But for the majority of the show, I’m afraid, they utterly failed to communicate these things to me, making Zauberland considerably less than the sum of its parts. For all its musical virtues and for all Bullock's dramatic commitment, the 40 minutes or so after the Schumann, spent in a continual state of confusion, felt interminable.

**111