City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen … Berg Wozzeck

Wozzeck – opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after the drama Woyzek by Georg Büchner

Wozzeck – Simon Keenlyside
Marie – Katarina Dalayman
Andres – Robert Murray
Captain – Peter Hoare
Doctor – Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Drum-Major – Hubert Francis
Margret – Anna Burford
First Apprentice – David Soar
Second Apprentice – Leigh Melrose
Idiot – Ben Johnson
A Soldier – Peter Wilman
Marie’s Child – Louis Watkins

Philharmonia Voices
Children’s Chorus [from London schools]

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Jean-Baptiste Barrière – general conception and direction

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 8 October, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Last photograph of Alban Berg (1885-1935)From many angles, this is as good as it gets. Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck”, one of the great masterpieces of the operatic literature (from any period) boasts a score that surely tests the greatest orchestras. To have the Philharmonia Orchestra is luxury indeed and, with Esa-Pekka Salonen as guide, the result was a performance of immense stature. This semi-staged account was not without problems, certainly, but that it has burned onto the memory is testament to its success.

The ‘staging’, by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, takes a different line from the traditional view of “Wozzeck” as bleak, usually cast in greys and blacks. Instead, a huge screen behind the orchestra shows swirls of expressionist colours, inspired by the likes of Kandinsky, Klee and Macke. The character of Wozzeck (Simon Keenlyside) has a micro-camera placed on him, so we see other characters from his perspective in the prevailing colour swirl; three other cameras provide extra vantage points. The problem was those patterns reminded of the Windows Media Player when you’re playing sound only. Perhaps to describe it as an expressionist kaleidoscope would be a touch kinder, but the fact is that the conception triumphed over the realisation in this case. The use of stage space was better, in that by using just the gap between orchestra and the front of the stage, there was a palpable sense of claustrophobia – the world of this opera is pretty insular, after all. Only in the final act was there a change from this pattern: a huge red moon (“Der Mond ist blutig”) was projected as a backdrop.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingAmplification was unexpectedly used for some singers that seemed to fail in the Marie/Margret exchanges as they admire the Drum-Major (they were simply inaudible). A shame, as the ensuing dramatic moment (and the effect of Marie’s line “Komm, mein Bub’” – Ah, my baby – after her scream of “Luder!” – Bitch!) was totally lost. Costumes were mainly apt. Wozzeck was of course in army get-up, yet I did not quite get the Doctor’s English-schoolteacher Oxfam suit.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s reading was as complete as any I have heard. Time and time again his composer’s ear for texture and for structure came to the fore. Berg organised the score meticulously (there is even a metronome marking with a decimal point at one stage). Carrying on from Schoenberg’s exploration of the use of pre-extant forms shorn of tonal workings, Berg fashions the first act as a Suite, the second act as a loose symphony but one that includes a triple fugue (the sequence of scenes yields Sonata allegro-Fantasia and Fugue on Three Themes, Largo-Scherzo-Rondo) and, most progressively of all, the third act as a series of inventions on musical parameters with an extra interlude on a tonality. So, Act III/1 is an Invention on a Theme; III/2 is an Invention on a note (B); III/3 works with a rhythm (Hauptrhythmus); III/4 is an invention on a hexachord; the Interlude between III/4 and III/5 is an invention on a tonality (D minor, with pronounced Mahlerian leanings); and III/5 is invention on a moto perpetuo.

Although the opera as a whole is at once of its time and simultaneously immensely forward-looking, it is this final act that is, in terms of musical process, the most startling. Salonen delineated each scene magnificently, honouring the compositional machinations without once drawing attention to them self-consciously (save the nature of the Triple Fugue pointing to the obsessions of the Captain and the Doctor). As a result, the operations worked on a slightly less than conscious level to successfully prepare the huge climax of the D minor Interlude, here beautifully and poignantly shaped. Folk elements (Andres’s hunting song, for example) took on macabre connotations.

Simon KeenlysideAn athletic Simon Keenlyside played Wozzeck (he is asked to sprint on a number of occasions). Most recently seen in London as Rodrigo in the Royal Opera’s “Don Carlo”, this was quite a change from supporting character to centre-stage focus. More than on any other occasion I have seen him, Keenlyside seemed inside the character. The unshaved appearance, the compulsive physical mannerisms suggesting mental illness, all contributed to a harrowing portrayal. Wozzeck himself is perhaps the closest we get to a complete portrait of a character in this opera: certainly the Captain, Doctor and Drum-Major are caricatures (the rushing-averse small-minded Captain, the Doctor completely taken over by his experiments, of which Wozzeck is the human guinea pig, the sexual-conquest-driven Drum-Major). Andres facilitates our perceptions of Wozzeck’s encroaching madness (“He! Bist du Toll?” he shouts as Wozzeck hallucinates expressionist fantasies in I/2), while Margret contextualises Marie’s feelings. Keenlyside managed to drag us into his eminently disturbed world, a world distinctly without a concrete Weltanschauung. Wozzeck exists to survive. His cry, which returns so many times in the musical material, of “Wir arme Leut!” (I/1) was made all the more harrowing by Salonen’s stark emphasis of the double basses’ underpinning. Keenlyside understood that the starting point of the opera is a man already crushed. And it is downhill from there. Perhaps Keenlyside’s finest moments were around the murder itself (of Marie), the moment of murder and the beginning of III/4 when he searches for the murder weapon, the knife.

Katarina Dalayman took the immensely demanding part of Marie. Her long descent that falls from the upper reaches of the soprano range right down into lower mezzo territory in the Lullaby (I/3, “Lauter kühle Wein muss es sein”) was expertly managed. Her scene with the Drum-Major (I/5) showed her true mettle, climaxing in a truly spine-tingling “Rühr mich nicht an!” (some commentators have found a link between this and the moment Leonore divests herself of her disguise in “Fidelio”). Her scene in which she wrestles with moral dilemma (III/1) was a highpoint. She successfully differentiated the Bible readings (Mark 10:14, accompanied with a gossamer touch from the orchestra) to her reactions to them.

Robert Murray was as a young, fresh Andres, although occasionally he had problems projecting over the orchestra. Peter Hoare’s Captain was superb in its unapologetic caricature just as Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s Doctor was massively disturbing in its travesty of what medicine should be. More, Scheidegger’s voice was wonderfully focussed. All of the smaller parts were taken with aplomb, but one in particular warrants mention: Anna Burford’s Margret was amazing. She is more contralto than mezzo, yet she can project to fill the largest of spaces. Louis Watkins was the sweet child of the final scene, blissfully oblivious of the actions that have been played out and, implicitly, all ready to do it again (the opera returns to its starting point, harmonically). Only Hubert Francis’s Drum-Major failed to fully fit the part; vocally all was there, but it was difficult to believe that this was a sexual lion. The members of Philharmonia Voices were on excellent form, relishing Berg’s notated version of snoring soldiers.

This was an amazing evening, if not a faultless one.

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