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Florian Boesch [Photo by Lukas Beck]
16 Jun 2016

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Florian Boesch [Photo by Lukas Beck]


Excellent singers rounded out the cast. This closing concert of the Concertgebouw Saturday Matinee serie also served as a thrilling early course at the Holland Festival (HF).

You have to admire how HF reignites seminal masterpieces with a relevance for modern and young crowds. Besides the concert performance of Wozzeck, this edition also reintroduces audiences to Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a multimedia take from Brazil and to Haydn’s Die Schöpfung by René Jacobs with his B’Rok Orchestra and Collegium Vocale Gent together with a cinematic component.

Berg adapted Georg Büchner’s 1837 incomplete play Woyzeck nearly word for word, and created an atonal sound world while referring to late-Romantic composers like Mahler. Berg’s compositional imagination connects fifteen simple, episodic scenes spread over three acts. Wozzeck is the poor everyman. Constantly challenged, the better-off Captain and Doctor belittle him, and his wife cheats on him with the Drum Major. In the end Wozzeck kills her, goes mad and drowns under a red moon. It’s poignant, compact in intensity, and utterly gripping.

According to Florian Boesch, Wozzeck is the best opera written. In a recent radio interview he described how the “genius pairing” of Buchner and Berg a century ago resulted in this extraordinary piece. As the lead, he impressively portrayed the agitated character of the poor man. With whispers and bellows, his voice resonated in Stenz’s dense orchestral texture. Sometimes Grigorian overshadowed Boesch with her powerful volume, but most of the time Boesch’s Wozzeck was a triumphant win.

(c) Rokas Baltakys.pngAsmik Grigorian [Photo © Rokas Baltakys]

Vocally the stage belonged to Asmik Grigorian. A superlative performance in which she revealed her great range bending from rarified high notes in loving and honest moments, to darker low tones for her cynically phrased Sprechgesang. Her silver-plated voice dynamically phrased Berg’s text with great expressive effects. The brilliance to her powerful volume conquered the Concertgebouw. Stenz, Boesch, Grigorian previously presented this piece on stage in Cologne, where it was highly appreciated. Today you could tell everyone knew what they wanted out of each other, leading to this special musical chemistry.

Without any stage burden, the singers could focus on Berg’s atonal acrobatics. As Marie’s friend Margaret, Cécile van de Sant’s thick vibrato contrasted beautifully with Grigorian. Endrik Wottrich impressed with his deep resonance as the Drum Major, while Peter Tantsits included a sense of desperation in his Andres in his compelling moments with Boesch. Thomas Piffka (Captain) and Nathan Berg (Doktor) injected their characters with the necessary nasty disdain towards Wozzeck.

As he harnessed the Concertgebouw acoustics, Stenz elucidated the details in Berg’s score. At one point Berg’s fascinating fugue passed by with great transparency. Even though the singers stood before the orchestra on stage, the volume and density overpowered the voices, but always briefly till Stenz adjusted the balance. While Boesch had some problems with this at the beginning, he later amped up his volume--as if it was nothing-- and increased his presence.

For the military parade Marie listens to from afar, the musicians relocated downstairs in the lobby, generating an effectively distant sound effect. Towards the end of the second act, guitar and accordion brought out the folksy moments during the Inn scenes. Brass produced moments of fierce brilliance, while at other times creating a soft, shimmering red glow. A particularly extraordinary viola solo haunted, the celesta contributed alien dimensions.

The Netherlands Radio Choir produced lucid passage with great power. The National Children’s Choir added an icy chill to the ending, when they (including Marie’s child) sang with an angelic sound about Marie’s death, eventually running off to go see the dead body. Highly unsettling!

Besides the extraordinary musical experience, Wozzeck also offered enough to contemplate. In the first scene, Wozzeck declares a moral life difficult to sustain for a man without means. Is this true? As this laden question focuses on the poor man’s despair, with Berg’s opera Holland Festival certainly taps into the zeitgeist of economic inequality and public discontent.

David Pinedo

You can see the webcast of the performance here.

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