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Esa-Pekka Salonen [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of Fidelio Arts]
14 Nov 2012

Wozzeck at UC Berkeley

At this famous bastion of intellect the biggest drama was the parking. Though the football stadium may have been stuffed, Zellerbach Hall was not.

Wozzeck at UC Berkeley

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Esa-Pekka Salonen [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of Fidelio Arts]


An appearance by London’s famed Philharmonia orchestra starring in one of opera’s most riveting theater pieces (an avowed intellectual masterpiece as well) might well have generated sufficient advance excitement to fill the hall. Sad to say, come to pass, not a lot of excitement was created in the hall either.

The Philharmonia’s claim to fame is its conductorial pedigree more so than its sound — Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karijan, Ricardo Muti, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Christoph von Dohnányi. And now Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, well known locally as one of the L.A. Phil’s wunderkind (with Rattle and Dudamel).

The no-longer-young maestro did deliver splendidly on what we came for — the three stupendous B’s after Marie is murdered grew to unequaled quivering force, and the masterful, musically riveting Invention in D minor led to the superbly delivered, tonally pure “hop hop” repetitions that end the opera (how did excellent boy soprano Zachary Mamis so securely find those incredibly high pitches?). All these were wonderful, uniquely Salonen moments.

The maestro made a good case for Wozzeck as an orchestral showpiece, marking solid beats to expose the shape and rhythms of the abstract structures that construct acts I and II, reserving his serpentine hand movement to motivate elaborations of color in the too few moments of orchestral solo. As Berg’s score is cerebral Salonen’s delivery too was cerebral, may we say cold, even uninvolved in the opera’s dramatic exposition.

Berg’s score, an opera, is far more than pure music. It is the physical atmospheres in which the Wozzeck tragedy unfolds. Without Berg’s prescribed physical production (sets, lights, costumes) an orchestra acting alone takes on the enormous burden of creating complex atmospheres. This began to occur somewhat in the second act in the public scenes, and took hold in the third act when Berg’s more formal structures gave way to free musical invention. Here Salonen followed suit with a freer dramatic involvement.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is known for the warmth of its strings, an attribute that is not really present in the Wozzeck atonalities. Yet the strings of this orchestra made a startling showing in projecting the nervous attitudes that Berg created and the still youthful maestro elicited. The youth (relative) of the players was evident, dominated by the nearly electric presence of 30-year-old German concert master Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay.

Spreading the Philarmonia Orchestra on the stage rather than, let’s say, cramming Berg’s sizable orchestral requirements into a pit engendered a clarity of instrumental tone, and a transparency of sound that exacerbated Salonen’s coldness. At the same time however it redeemed the coldness into a musical and instrumental purity that made this very fine orchestra great, and made it the star of the show, as intended.

The assembled singers included several distinguished artists. All were quite capable of fulfilling their role, here primarily to fill the musical space Berg’s score demands. With no overview of the opera other than that imposed by the maestro it became however a mere reading of the text. Then there was the unfortunate idea that some staging was needed, when in fact a purely concert performance would have complemented the performance by the orchestra.

The singers apparently attempted to move and emote as they saw fit. This resulted in some strange solutions to entrances and exits, motivations and discoveries. Unfortunately this British bred Wozzeck did not attempt to compete with the semi-staged operas recently attempted by the L.A. and N.Y. Philharmonics, endeavors that sensibly enough involved opera directors. And by the way when are opera companies going to start staging symphonies?

This Wozzeck in Berkeley was the full musical nine-yards. The UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus acquitted itself handsomely (a few missed pitches), the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choirs marched on and did its duty, and members of the UC Berkeley Symphony well managed the off-stage banda and most of the on-stage banda (the clarinet player was from the Philharmonia).

Michael Milenski

Cast and Production

Wozzeck: Johan Reuter; Marie: Angela Denoke; Drum Major: Hubert Francis; Andres: Joshua Ellicott; Captain: Peter Hoare; Doctor: Tijl Faveyts; First Apprentice Henry Waddington; Second Apprentice: Eddie Wade; Idiot: Harry Nicoll; Margret: Anna Burford; Marie’s Child: Zachary Mamis. UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus. Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. Members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. The Philharmonia Orchestra. Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California. November 10, 2012.

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