When director Mark Lamos heard Andreas Scholl at London's Wigmore Hall last year, he was blown away by the renowned German countertenor's poignant performance of a John Dowland song. "It had such a brooding, lyrical quality," Lamos says. "And in Andreas's delivery, it had all the power of a great Shakespeare sonnet."
In recent recitals Scholl has been toying with presenting these lute songs in ways that break loose from recital conventions. That's why he and Lamos have teamed up for The Renaissance Muse, a presentation of Lincoln Center's New Visions series, to be performed January 26, 28, and 29 at the John Jay College Theater.
"This is not a lieder recital by any means," asserts the director. "It does the thing that New Visions always does, taking music of a rather intellectual quality and giving it a dramatic, theatrical idea." Just think back to Simon Keenlyside's bravura performance of Winterreise, in which the nimble baritone contorted his body to Trisha Brown's inspired choreography while singing Schubert's cycle.
In Renaissance Muse, Scholl will sing a mix of Renaissance songs intertwined with poetry recitations by actor Laila Robins, best known for her performance last spring as the conflicted psychologist in Byrony Lavery's Tony-nominated play, Frozen. Also on hand will be lute player Crawford Young and harpist Stacey Shames.
Here's the idea: Lamos and Lincoln Center Theater dramaturg Anne Cattaneo chose several sonnets by Shakespeare, some by Andrew Marvell, and some poems by lesser-known poets such as Thomas Wyatt. These selections echo and contemplate the songs Scholl has chosen, and the songs in turn may pick up on something uttered in the poems. As Scholl points out, "In our August rehearsal, we found that the spoken word starts to sound sung, and the singing starts to sound recited. So after the first 15 minutes, the audience may not realize if this is sung or that is spoken. The rhythms of the poetry and rhythms in the music share the same basics."
One of the central songs in the program is one of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance, John Dowland's "In Darkness let me dwell."
In Darkness let me dwell,
The ground shall Sorrow be;
The roof Despair to bar
All cheerful light from me,
The walls of marble black
That moisten'd still shall weep;
My music hellish jarring sounds
To banish friendly sleep.
Thus wedded to my woes
And bedded to my tomb,
O let me living die,
Till death do come.
Dowland's music is exquisitely, almost unbearably sad, like most of the output of this sine qua non master of melancholy.
"Dowland was known as being super depressive," explains Scholl. "People were even saying, 'Semper Dowland, semper dolens‹Always Dowland, always suffering.' 'In Darkness' is probably the most beautiful expression of depression in music, ever. In Germany, we have a word, ungluckseeligkeit. 'Ungluck' is 'despair,' and 'seelig' means to be inspired in a happy way‹so you kind of enjoy your misery. In the Italian Renaissance, they'd write songs about wanting their problems and sorrow to disappear. But Dowland wrote songs that said, 'Sorrow stick around, don't go away.' He doesn't even desire to be happy again‹that's the core of his writing." Dowland, in other words, was not a happy camper, but he was a rather productive one. Scholl admits that being depressed was "a bit chic" during England's Renaissance.
There is something about the countertenor voice‹a man singing in a high tessitura‹that is particularly well suited to expressing such melancholy. Even a voice that is as velvety and dexterous as Scholl's.
"The high male voice transcends being male or female," Scholl says. "It's not about the mix of both sexes. It's the next step: it's about being human, with a more universal voice speaking. If it's a woman singing, it gives the idea she's complaining about men. If a man sings, it's about the inconstancy of women, which is a big subject in the Renaissance too. But if it's a man who sings through the high voice, he transcends the stereotypical, clichéd role of masculinity, and transcends to the human level. Therefore there are probably more possibilities to identify with the words."
But just in case you think this concert will dwell in nothing but darkness, lighter songs by Robert Johnson and humorous ones by Thomas Campion and others will be included as well. Scholl also smartly includes hits from the pop repertoire of the time.
"It would be unfair to completely ignore the folk culture of the Renaissance," he says, "especially since the most beautiful English folk songs date back to that time. At the time of John Dowland, there was a vast culture of folk music as well as art music, and they are very complementary. And in the folk songs, the singer becomes a storyteller."
One of the only American folk songs in Scholl's program will be "Wayfaring Stranger," which, the singer notes, was written in Texas. "It's an authentic folk song from the first settlers who moved there trying to express their connection and the roots they had in their faith," he says.
Even the English songs have important ties to American folk culture. The most original versions of many English folk songs can be found in the United States because exiles from the British Isles aggressively preserved their native culture in the most authentic way. Back in England the music moved on and changed, so the older, authentic versions are now found in the Appalachian mountains.
"The evening will be a journey," says Lamos. "I think that this concert will take the audience back in time and give them an idea of what the sentiments and emotions and feelings of the English Renaissance were."
Robert Hilferty is a frequent contributor to Playbill.