Support independent arts journalism by joining our Patreon! Currently $5/month.

About Superconductor

Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Opera Review: It's a Gutter Ballet

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Wozzeck at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Baritone Simon Keenlyside sang Wozzeck at Lincoln Center.
On Monday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen led a concert performance of Alban Berg's Wozzeck, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Keenlyside in the title role. Although played in a concert setting, the singers eschewed music stands, playing out the drama in front of the orchestra in a narrow, claustrophobic acting space along the lip of the stage in Avery Fisher Hall.

Berg's opera is a study in contrasts. To set Woyzeck, the sprawling, chaotic play by Georg Büchner that is the opera's source material, the composer relied on an absolute, rigid use of forms. The first act is composed as a suite, with each short scene forming a dance movement of sorts. The second is a miniature symphony of despair. For the work's apocalyptic last act Berg created a series of "Inventions," with each scene based on a different type of musical element.

This rigorous approach paved the way for twelve-tone composition and the serialism that followed, but each piece of math music has its own radiant inner beauty. Mr. Salonen conducted a burly reading of the score that highlighted the chamber-like details and witty parodies that lie buried in this brilliant work. Compressing the three acts into a tight 95 minutes, he drove the performance with deadly precision, allowing the luminous moments in the score their own chances to shine.

Mr. Keenlyside, fresh from his run as Prospero in the Met's new production of The Tempest lay down his staff for Wozzeck's knife, inhabiting the soldier's madness for a harrowing three acts. Indeed, his Wozzeck seems unbalanced from the first few moments, jittering and twitching in the fields with Andreas, and barely interacting wih Marie and their child, here played by empty air.

As the drama progressed, the British baritone became more disheveled. Moving between spoken word, sprechstimme and (occasional) singing, he sank quickly into full-on dementia, huddling on Mr. Salonen's podium as if conductor and orchestra were among his persecutors. His final murder of Marie had apocalyptic power, backed by the full strength of the Philharmonia forces.

This performance reunited Mr. Keenlyside with his old Parisian partner, Angela Denoke, as Marie, the mother of Wozzeck's child. The two singers played off their long experience of portraying this unhappy couple, their scenes moving swiftly towards her murder in the last act. The only limitation of the small stage was a lack of a young Wozzeck for the domestic scenes. The choral singer portraying their child did not actually appear until the last scene of the opera.

Peter Hoare brought a piercing tone and fussy attitude to the Captain, Wozzeck's befuddled, cruel superior officer. Even better was Belgian bass Tijl Faveyts as the Doctor, whose bizarre dietary experiments cause Wozzeck no end of grief in exchange for a few pennies. These two fine character singers were at their best in their two scenes together--the complex trio with Wozzeck at the heart of Act II and their sideline commentary as the hapless soldier drowns himself.

Tenor Hubert Francis was a strident Drum Major, the popinjay officer who captures Marie's wayward eye and then beats the cuckolded Wozzeck. Another tenor, Joshua Ellot sang Andreas, Wozzeck's fellow soldier whose banal hunting ditties are among the few tonal moments in the score. This latter melody was repeated by the Westminster Symphonic Choir, who were on hand for the entire opera despite having very little music to sing.

Trending on Superconductor


Share My Blog!

Share |

Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats