Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen in New York – Berg’s Wozzeck with Simon Keenlyside

Wozzeck – Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner [concert performance; sung in German with English surtitles]

Wozzeck – Simon Keenlyside
Marie – Angela Denoke
Captain – Peter Hoare
Drum Major – Hubert Francis
Doctor – Tijl Faveyts
Andres – Joshua Ellicot
Margret – Anna Burford
First Apprentice – Henry Waddington
Second Apprentice – Eddie Wade
Idiot – Harry Nicoll

Westminster Symphonic Choir
The American Boychoir
Members of UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 19 November, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen concluded their tour of America with a semi-staged performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Avery Fisher Hall’s stage was extended slightly to provide a space in front of the orchestra in which the well-staged action took place (although no director was credited). The Westminster Symphonic Choir was on risers behind the orchestra, with a narrow platform in front of these singers for The American Boychoir in the final scene. Members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra ably served as the tavern and the military bands. The performance was without intermission, Salonen stepping down from the podium for a brief pause between the acts.

Simon Keenlyside. Photograph: Uwe ArensAlthough the staging was rudimentary, the outstanding cast, led by Simon Keenlyside and Angela Denoke, sang and acted superbly. Hearing the orchestra on a concert-hall stage rather than from an opera-house pit more than compensated for the limited visual elements, as both the sheer power and fine details of Berg’s spectacular score came to life with clarity through Salonen’s incisive reading and the Philharmonia’s brilliant performance. Aidan Oliver was the assistant conductor.

Keenlyside brought his special brand of musical and dramatic intelligence to the title character. He masterfully navigated the variety of Berg’s score. From his nervous gestures even before uttering his first monotonic “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!”, Keenlyside’s Wozzeck was clearly a defeated man, providing services for the Captain and serving as a guinea pig for the Doctor’s absurd medical experiments – to supplement his army pay in order to support Marie and their child. From the very beginning and the hallucinations that prompt Andres’s cry “He, bist Du toll?” (Are you mad?), Keenlyside drew a vivid portrait of Wozzeck’s descent into madness, culminating with his fatal stabbing of Marie, his compulsive search for the murder weapon and his drowning – witnessed by the impassive Captain and Doctor.

Angela Denoke. Photograph: Johannes IfkovitsThe role of Marie also poses enormous vocal and dramatic challenges, met superbly by Angela Denoke, who was secure throughout the wide range the part requires. Marie’s Lullaby and Biblical reading to her child were rendered with touching sincerity, and her rapid changes of mood were well portrayed as she flirted with the Drum Major, then rejected him, and finally gave in to his advances. Denoke, too, deftly shifted from one vocal style to another, each reflecting a different aspect of Marie’s character.

Wozzeck’s three bêtes noires were given striking characterizations by outstanding singers. Hubert Francis brought vocal heft to the Heldentenor role of the Drum Major, coarsely asserting his masculinity as he seduces Marie and later assaults the hapless Wozzeck. This was the only character whose dramatic impact was diminished by the absence of a costume. Peter Hoare as the pathologically fearful Captain and Tijl Faveyts as the fame-seeking, megalomaniacal Doctor both sang superbly and acted with broad humor as they demeaned and tormented the impoverished Wozzeck. Their encounter with one another in Act Two was quite hilarious, but when Wozzeck joined them, their mocking references to razors, shaves and beards fell somewhat dull because there had been no depiction of Wozzeck shaving the Captain in the opera’s opening.

Also excellent were Joshua Ellicot as Andres, Anna Burford as Margret, Henry Waddington and Eddie Wade as the two Apprentices, and Harry Nicoll as the Idiot who foretells Wozzeck’s bloody end. Waddington’s philosophizing song was a particular high point. The Westminster singers and the children’s choir all performed ably. The (unbilled) child who portrayed the son of Wozzeck and Marie did not appear until the final scene, requiring them to address an invisible offspring throughout the opera!

The Philharmonia’s players demonstrated their virtuosity, particularly in the interludes that link the scenes. At the dramatic focal point – Marie’s murder – which also provides the most powerful music, the Orchestra demonstrated its stature. The huge crescendo entirely on B-natural that built in volume as instrument after instrument joined in, the ensuing series of rapid drum-beats, and the second, tutti, crescendo, also on B, were astounding and overpowering. Also noteworthy was the entr’acte, begun and ended with harp glissandos, which followed the first scene of Act Two, as well as the final extended interlude, in which the opera’s principal themes recur, with marvelous playing by winds and brasses over soft string tremolos, fading into the children’s playful, sweet singing.

Wozzeck is a carefully structured and rigorous work, each scene composed in a distinct musical form, a dance-suite, a military march, a passacaglia, movements of a symphony, and a series of inventions. Berg recognized that these underlying forms may not be immediately apparent to the listener, but he wished only that audiences grasp the opera’s social implications, fully realized here, the audience reserving its thunderous applause until the end of the opera.

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