Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit - Ensemble Correspondances

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances led by Sébastien Daucé, the glorious culmination of the finest London Festival of the Baroque in years on the theme "Treasures of the Grand Siècle". Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's announcement that he would be "Roi du Soleil", a ruler whose magnificence would transform France, and the world, in a new age of splendour.

Voices of Revolution – Prokofiev, Exile and Return

Seven, they are Seven , op.30; Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19; Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74. David Butt Philip (tenor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director), Philharmonia Voices, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band), Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 20 May 2018.

Charpentier Histoires sacrées, staged - London Baroque Festival

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé, at St John's Smith Square, part of the London Festival of the Baroque 2018. This striking staging, by Vincent Huguet, brought out its austere glory: every bit a treasure of the Grand Siècle, though this grandeur was dedicated not to Sun God but to God.

Aïda in Seattle: don’t mention the war!

When Francesca Zambello presented Aïda at her own Glimmerglass Opera in 2012, her staging was, as they say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” Fighter planes strafed the Egyptian headquarters as the curtain rose, water-boarding was the favored form of interrogation, Radames was executed by lethal injection.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago is now featuring as its spring musical Jesus Christ Superstar with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The production originated with the Regent’s Park Theatre, London with additional scenery by Bay Productions, U.K. and Commercial Silk International.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

As a figure in the history of 20th century art, few deserve to be closer to center stage than Ida Rubenbstein. Without her talent, determination, and vast wealth, Ravel’s Boléro, Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Stravinsky’s Perséphone would not exist.

La concordia de’ pianeti: Imperial flattery set to Baroque splendor in Amsterdam

One trusts the banquet following the world premiere of La concordia de’ pianeti proffered some spicy flavors, because Pietro Pariati’s text is so cloying it causes violent stomach-churning. In contrast, Antonio Caldara’s music sparkles and dances like a blaze of crystal chandeliers.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Affecting and Effective Traviata in San Jose

Opera San Jose capped its consistently enjoyable, artistically accomplished 2017-2018 season with a dramatically thoughtful, musically sound rendition of Verdi’s immortal La traviata.

Brahms Liederabend

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

Angel Blue in La Traviata

One of the most beloved operas of all time, Verdi’s “ La Traviata” has never lost its enduring appeal as a tragic tale of love and loss, as potent today as it was during its Venice premiere in 1853.

Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho at Wigmore Hall

Is it possible, I wonder, to have too much of a ‘good thing’? Baritone Matthias Goerne can spin an extended vocal line and float a lyrical pianissimo with an unrivalled beauty that astonishes no matter how many times one hears and admires the evenness of line, the controlled legato, the tenderness of tone.

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Simon Keenlyside As Wozzeck and Karita Mattila as Marie [Photo © ROH/ Catherine Ashmore]
01 Nov 2013

Wozzeck, Royal Opera

The lustreless white tiles of the laboratory which forms the set of Keith Warner’s pitiless staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck offer little respite — cold, hard, rigid and severe, they are a material embodiment of the bleakness and barrenness of the tragic events which will be played out within the workshop walls (sets by Stefanos Lazaridis).

Wozzeck, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Simon Keenlyside As Wozzeck and Karita Mattila as Marie

Photos © ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

 

Only Marie’s small, shabby bedroom, to the front left, provide some respite from the unalleviated soullessness.

First seen in 2002, winner of an Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production in 2003, and revived in 2005, Warner’s staging asks much of its personnel. The institutional grimy white is transmuted only occasionally by a black triangular shape which descends from the flies, and by the mirrored wall onto which Wozzeck’s mysterious hallucinations are projected (lighting design, Rick Fisher); this single-set offers little assistance to the singer who must convey Wozzeck’s misery and oppression as, ever more humiliated and betrayed, his world shrinks to become a claustrophobic prison of mental confinement.

Buchner’s Wozzeck is deeply affected by the natural world, but here there are no external locales, no mists or rising suns, no eerie moonlight; the toad-stalls which so disturb Wozzeck — small, delicate rings, wondrously inscrutable beneath the arching, glittering constellations above — are here giant-sized, contained within one of four the clinical glass tanks in which the Doctor conducts his experiments.

In Warner’s concept we seem to be within Wozzeck’s own mind — a mind which is already unhinged at the start of the opera. It’s certainly the case that by the end of Berg’s opera we see, and hear, the world through Wozzeck’s perspective: the lullaby which the bar maid sings to Wozzeck when he stumbles into the tavern after his horrific act; the deafening, hysterical cries of the crowd, ‘Blood! Blood!’, when his crime is discovered; the rising parallel scales as Wozzeck sinks to his depths of the pool of water in which he strives in vain to rinse the bloodstains from his hands — all of these musical details present us with a world seen through Wozzeck’s eyes, a world distorted by his own obsessions and fears. But, we need the context to appreciate this warped subjective vision. The grotesques with which Berg presents us are not simply caricatures, or abstractions of cruelty, they are representatives of the selfish, heartless ruling class, one that subjugates the less fortunate, forcing them into financial and moral impoverishment. This is the society that defeats the humble Wozzeck, a member of the oppressed under-class, who is driven to commit murder by his poverty and powerless.

Wozzeck_ROH_03.gifSimon Keenlyside as Wozzeck and John Tomlinson as Doctor

Baritone Simon Keenlyside is an experienced veteran in the title role - this year alone he has already performed the part in Vienna, Madrid and Munich - but in some ways he might be thought too physically suave and composed to convince as the mentally ravaged soldier. But, Keenlyside showed us the psychological rawness while maintaining the essence of Wozzeck’s humanity, the beauty of the vocal lines drawing us into his confusion, the variations of colour and nuance revealing the depth of that bewilderment. The lightness of his baritone contrasted effectively with the Doctor’s deep bass, emphasising further Wozzeck’s defencelessness; progressively dehumanised, rendered ever more inarticulate, Keenlyside evoked a powerful sense of Grimes-like alienation from those around him. His interactions with his child, played with acuity by Sebastian Wright, were painfully poignant.

Keenlyside’s voice is essentially lyrical and herein lies a small misgiving though, for the eloquence of the vocal lines was sometimes at odds with the primitive brutality of the experience. The baritone, in common with virtually all the cast, doesn’t make much of the Sprechstimme but some vocal ‘roughness’ is needed to project the tragedy of this “psychotic anti-hero” (Derek Jarman). The contrast of lyrical and half-spoken utterance can be deeply expressive, as in the drowning scene in Act 3 when, as he desperately searches for the murder weapon, Wozzeck’s Sprechstimme ‘All is still and dead’ contrasts with his ferocious shouts of ‘Murder’. ‘Who cried?’ he wonders, then realises that it was he himself who spoke; the different vocal idioms reveal a destructive fragmentation of both body and psyche, one which is made more poignant when Wozzeck then sings tenderly over Marie’s dead body: ‘Marie! What is that crimson necklace you’re wearing? Was that well-earned, or sinful, just like the earrings?’ Has he really forgotten what he has done?

Singing the role of Marie for the first time, Karita Matilla sang with typical fearlessness and passion. However, though dressed in a cheap floral frock and hiding her own blond hair beneath a grubby brown wig, Matilla perhaps retained rather too much of her natural poise and grace, her tone too consistently sensuous and alluring for a rough and ready adulteress. The silky high notes in her prayer scene were truly beautiful though, and in Act 3 Matilla’s declamations were full of urgency and anguish.

Wozzeck_ROH_04.gifSimon Keenlyside as Wozzeck and Endrik Wottrich as Drum Major

John Tomlinson’s Doctor was no cartoon-esque ‘mad scientist’, but rather a cruel, callous manipulator, for whom each and every man and woman is a potential medical specimen, ripe for merciless experiment, no more deserving of compassion that a shark in formaldehyde. Tomlinson acted the part of the obsessive maniac superbly, although the vocal performance was a little uneven.

The Doctor’s hideous duet with the Captain, Gerhard Siegel, was appropriately ghastly, a masterpiece of caricature, the magnification of abnormality verging on madness which they use to control and exploit Wozzeck. Siegel relished the Captain’s idiocies, formidably establishing his moral vacuity in the opening scene with Wozzeck, his tenor muscular and strong as he rambled interminably about his superior intellect and status, spouting empty-headed philosophical sound-bites.

Endrik Wottrich’s Drum Major sounded a little strained, but his steely tone suited the callousness of the abusive lecher, and he acted well. John Easterlin might have made more impact as Andres, Wozzeck’s companion; his folky huntsman’s song in Scene 2 should ideally contrast more strikingly with Wozzeck’s eerie Sprechstimme utterances, indicating the schism that separates these supposed friends. Allison Cook (Margret) and Robin Tritschler (Half-Wit) performed well in their cameo roles, and Jeremy White and Grant Doyle acquitted themselves ably as the First and Second Apprentice respectively. The ROH chorus were rather genteel for a crowd of soldiers, workers and revelers who have not yet had the life spirit syringed out of them by the Doctor.

One of the most discomforting and expressively provocative aspects of this production is that the blank desolation of the sets is completely at odds with the expressive richness of Berg’s score. And, in Mark Elder’s hands this disjuncture proved even more shocking as the conductor drew orchestral lines as incisive and piercing as a surgeon’s scalpel, dissecting the complex textures with clarity and power. Grating trombone rasps, the Dantesque dancing of the double bassoon, glistening harp sweeps, ghostly double bass col legno: the musical juxtapositions of distress and beauty did much to convey the discomposing confusion of Wozzeck’s world and mind. The fierce timpani hammer blows which cry out in fury at Wozzeck’s death were earth-shattering. Superb playing by the ROH Orchestra externalised the inner anguish of those on stage, literally voicing their suffering.

At the start, Wozzeck and Marie’s child sits alone at a desk studying a book; presumably scrutinising a copy of the annotated anatomical drawing of the human head which adorns the front-drop. What knowledge does he seek? The workings of the human mind? The causes of his father’s ‘madness’? The meaning of human existence? On-stage throughout, the child observes all, even witnessing his mother have brutal sex with the Drum Major — repulsively, the latter buys the child’s silence with a grubby coin.

Wozzeck_ROH_02.gifSimon Keenlyside as Wozzeck

At the end, we wonder what the child has learned, as he stares into a tank of blood-stained water, transfixed by his father’s bloated body, while his mother’s corpse lies to the right, disregarded. Amplified voices echo from the auditorium. There are no children’s games of hopscotch, no one to speak to the child and tell him that his mother is dead; one word seems to sum up the painful drama that we have witnessed — meaninglessness. But, rather than existential disorientation, it seems to me that expressionist extremity is closer to the heart of Wozzeck. The violent distortions and heightening have an expressive purpose. At the close, should not pity and empathy accompany our feelings of horror and despair? After all, the composer’s own sympathy for his protagonist imbues the final orchestral interlude.

Warner’s staging is so remorseless that the danger is that we become impassive, shell-shocked observers; stunned and aghast yes, but not moved. Removed from his social setting and context, this Wozzeck is not a common man suffering at the hands of society and circumstance; rather, the tragedy which befalls him is determined by inner psychological compulsions, and yet he experiences no revelation and as such there is no opportunity for catharsis, through pity and fear.

That said, this is a production not to be missed. The cast perform with absolute commitment, and we are paradoxically enthralled by the dispassionate, abusive transactions depicted, even while we flinch from the horrors that the cast of soulless grotesques inflict and endure.

Claire Seymour


Further performances take place on 5th, 8th, 12th and 15th November.

Cast and production information:

Captain, Gerhard Siegel; Wozzeck, Simon Keenlyside; Andres, John Easterlin; Marie, Marita Katilla; Child, Sebastian Wright; Margret, Allison Cook; Doctor, John Tomlinson; Drum Major, Endrik Wottrich; First Apprentice, Jeremy White; Second Apprentice, Grant Doyle; Half-Wit, Robin Tritschler; Director, Keith Warner; Conductor, Mark Elder; Set designs, Stefanos Lazaridis; Costume designs, Marie-Jeanne Lecca; Lighting design, Rick Fisher; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 31st October 2013.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):