Watch and Listen: Jessye Norman's "Erlkonig"

Some days, you just need a little pick me up of sturm und drang, no?

For me, nothing brings the drama like a great performance of Franz Shubert's "Erlkonig." "Erlkonig," or "The Erlking," is based on the poem by Goethe. It tells the story of a father and son traveling through the countryside at night. The boy becomes convinced he sees a ghostly figure--The Erlking--beckoning him to join his family with many daughters and plenty of food and toys. The father plays it off as childish superstition. The Erlking returns to claim the boy himself if he won't come voluntarily. He strikes the boy. Only then does his father realize the true nature of his son's cries. The father races as fast as he can to their home, but it is too late: the boy is dead.

Jessye Norman is not the first woman to tackle this song originally intended for baritone, but she is one of the most convincing performers of the song I've come across. She has four distinct voices for the four characters--the son, the father, The Erlking, and the narrator. The narrator opens and closes the piece, the father is the dark and round tone, the son the whispering (and eventually shrieking) soprano, and The Erlking the very rich--almost swallowed sounding--soprano. Her facial expression and body positioning sells it, as well.

Then there's the digital backdrop of white tree outlines on a blue background. Jessye Norman, as you see around the 2:15 mark of the video, is on a rotating platform in a bluescreen box. The result is hypnotic. It doesn't distract from her powerful performance. It actually draws the eye to her face.

Here are Shubert's translated lyrics if you want to follow along with the story. It's very well done.

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? The father it is, with his infant so dear; He holdeth the boy tightly clasp'd in his arm, He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

"My son, wherefore seek'st thou thy face thus to hide?" "Look, father, the Erlking is close by our side! Dost see not the Erlking, with crown and with train?" "My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain."

"Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me! For many a game I will play there with thee; On my beach, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold, My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold."

"My father, my father, and dost thou not hear The words that the Erlking now breathes in mine ear?" "Be calm, dearest child, thy fancy deceives; the wind is sighing through withering leaves."

"Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there? My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care My daughters by night on the dance floor you lead, They'll cradle and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep."

"My father, my father, and dost thou not see, How the Erlking is showing his daughters to me?" "My darling, my darling, I see it alright, 'Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight."

"I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy! And if thou aren't willing, then force I'll employ." "My father, my father, he seizes me fast, For sorely the Erlking has hurt me at last."

The father now gallops, with terror half wild, He holds in his arms the shuddering child; He reaches his farmstead with toil and dread,— The child in his arms lies motionless, dead.

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