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Johan Reuter [Photo courtesy of Michael Storrs Music]
21 Nov 2012

Wozzeck at Los Angeles

Wozzeck Wozzeck, Wozzeck: The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Laureate Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, now Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor to the London’ Philharmonia Orchestra, is touring the United States with a program that includes three staged performances of Alban Berg’s opera, Wozzeck.

Wozzeck at Los Angeles

A review by Estelle Gilson

Above: Johan Reuter [Photo courtesy of Michael Storrs Music]


One took place in Berkeley, (see OT), one in Los Angeles (about which further) and one is scheduled for New York.

Why Wozzeck? It’s an opera largely unknown to the usual opera going public and therefore likely to be box office poison. It’s an opera, unknown as well, to many musicians. Two Philharmonia instrumentalists commented on never having played the work before, and not liking it when they began rehearsals. Yet Maestro Salonen deliberately chose to perform the work on this tour. “I wanted to do something that has been very central in my life and in my repertoire for all those years, yet something that I haven’t performed in the United States.” he said. “And Wozzeck was one of those pieces — the first opera I ever conducted in my life. I was still in my twenties…and it has been absolutely central to me since.”

To any opera goer, who has been resistant to Wozzeck and to “the so-called atonal style” (a term used by Berg in discussing the opera), a statement like the above by a musician of Salonen’s status, should be reason enough to search out and listen to the work. But Salonen offered an even more compelling reason. “Wozzeck” he observed, is “one of the most powerful things composed by anybody. It’s hugely emotional, hugely dramatic and hugely tragic — with moments of humor, great tenderness and deepest despair ….It’s one of the most powerful experiences you can have in a concert hall.”

Wozzeck — a quick overview — the libretto: The plot is not much. You’ve heard or read the story every day in whatever media you follow.“Lover/husband kills girlfriend/wife — defense pleads insanity.”And indeed it was the 1824 execution of a Leipzig ex-soldier named Woyzeck, for whom one of the first ever insanity pleas was offered, (and denied) that inspired a young writer named Georg Büchner to begin writing a play on the subject.Büchner composed 23 sketches - essentially character sketches and brief encounters, but never completed the work. Young and radical, Büchner, who died in 1837 at the age of 23, was struck by what he saw as oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful. His well-to-do, powerful, self centered and cruel authority figures, a Doctor, an army Captain, and Drum Major, exploit, manipulate and destroy the impoverished and powerless Woyzeck and his wife. In the play, as in the opera, Woyzeck kills his wife and then drowns. Büchner’s incomplete and disordered sketches were eventually put together by others to form a play first performed seventy-six years after his death, in 1913. Immediately upon seeing the play, Berg determined to turn it into an opera. He chose fifteen of Büchner’s sketches and reordered them into three acts. Wozzeck (Berg changed the name) premiered in 1925, nearly a century after the playwright’s death.

The music- quickly again, though it’s information you don’t need in order to enjoy the opera. To accomplish that, you need only to listen and listen again.

As you’d expect much has been written about Berg’s genius in making a coherent musical whole of this disjointed text. He was a member of the Viennese School, led by Arnold Schoenberg, which in Berg’s own words had theretofore been “restricted to the creation of small forms such as songs, piano pieces and orchestral pieces.” In his detailed 1929 discussion of Wozzeck he describes the harmonic and structural techniques he employed to produce a large, cohesive work “without using tonality and the formal possibilities which spring from it.”

But don’t let Berg scare you. His music offers points of rest and coherency. Berg drew his audience’s attention to the harmony at the end of each act. “The point in a tonal composition at which the return to and establishment of the main key is made clear, so that it is recognizable to the eyes and ears of even the layman, must also be the point at which the harmonic circle closes in an atonal work. This sense of closure was first of all ensured by having each act of the opera steer towards one and the same closing chord, a chord that acted in the manner of a cadence and that was dwelled on as if on a tonic.”Berg employed the tonal feature of repeated Bs heard in every range, every instrument, and every dynamic associated with love and death in Third Act. There is dance music played by an accordion, a guitar and an out of tune piano in the ensuing tavern scene.And there’s Marie’s tender lullaby, a melody I assure you, it’s possible to keep in your head.

Berg’s lengthy lecture about the construction of Wozzeck reads the way Sergio Pininfarina might have sounded explaining how he put his latest Ferrari together. Fascinating — but to us ordinary folk, the power, the emotion, the pleasure derives not from the blueprint, but from the product itself.

The performance: Maestro Salonen’s affection and affinity for Wozzeck was made patently clear in this staged version of the opera. It was performed straight through with only brief pauses at the end of each act for the conductor to sit quietly and have some water. A large screen with English titles was visible throughout the house. The male singers were dressed alike in black pants and shirts, the two women, Marie and her friend, Margret wore long, elegant garments. The singers seemed closely supervised by Salonen, who faced them quite often and quite specifically cued them.

This was a unique performance of Wozzeck that would enhance anyone’s appreciation of the work in greatest part because of Salonen’s extraordinary intensity and attention to musical detail. However, the particular visual aspects of the Walt Disney Concert Hall were a factor as well. In this venue, where a large part of the audience can look directly down onto a well lit orchestra, it was possible to see how some of the opera’s most emotional moments were created: the single violist accompanying a vocal line, or the two percussionists slamming at a single timpani at a cataclysmic moment.

Salonen’s animated conducting style generally evokes comments by reviewers. What struck me most was his stance for instant cut-offs. Turned toward his left and the singers, he would stop sideways on the podium — and slash his baton toward the orchestra like a swordsman holding off a threatening enemy.

Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter was a powerful and moving Wozzeck. His large well focused voice served him as well for tender moments, as for fury. His lumbering unsteady gait entering and leaving the stage suited the character. As Marie, Wozzeck’s wife, German soprano Angela Denoke, who had vocal problems two years ago, sounded as if those were well in the past. Her large lyric voice rang effortlessly throughout its range and her acting captured both Marie’s affection for Wozzeck and their child, as well as her attraction to the Drum Major. British tenor Peter Hoare, who began his musical life as a percussionist, made a clear-voiced, suitably nasty Captain. Hubert Francis, dressed more smartly than the townspeople in white-tie and tails, was appropriately cocky, then fierce as the Drum Major. Kevin Burdette, a young American bass, who flew in the morning of the Los Angeles performance to replace Tijl Faveyts, sang the Doctor fluently — occasionally with the aid of score. Joshua Ellicott, as Andres, Anna Burford, as Margret, and Zachary Mamis, as Marie’s child, were excellent in smaller roles, as were Henry Waddington, Eddie Wade and Harry Nicoll. The UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir were impressive. Instrumentalist of the UC Berkeley Symphony contributed to the performance as well.

It should be noted that Wozzeck was not the only work that Maestro Salonen and the Philharmonia are performing on their tour, and that the tour includes many more cities than the above three named. The orchestra’s performance in San Diego of Mahler’s 9th Symphony was another example of Salonen’s ability to elucidate the emotional elements of a profound musical work.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and Production

Johan Reuter: Wozzeck; Angela Denoke:Marie; Hubert Francis: The Drum-Major; Joshua Ellicott:Andres; Peter Hoare:the Captain; Kevin Burdette:the Doctor; Henry Waddington:First Apprentice; Eddie Wade:Second Apprentice; Harry Nicoll:an Idiot;Anna Burford:Margret; Zachary Mamis, Marie’s Child

Philharmonia Orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. David Milnes, director. UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus. Marika Kuzma, director. Members of Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. Robert Geary, director. Sue Bolin: conductor.

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