Wozzeck Wows With Salonen and Philharmonia

Georgia Rowe on November 12, 2012
Wozzeck at Cal Performances
Esa-Pekka Salonen and Philharmonia concermaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay
Photo by Peg Skorpinski

Wozzeck returned to the Bay Area over the weekend to make its sensational descent into murder and madness. Saturday night at Zellerbach Hall, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in the kind of brilliantly authoritative performance that left no doubt as to the enduring power of Alban Berg’s 20th century masterpiece.

It’s been over a decade, at least, since local audiences have heard a Wozzeck this complete or this committed, and Saturday’s event, presented by Cal Performances as part of a three-day residency by Salonen and the Philharmonia, was all the more remarkable for its lack of staging. Presented in concert format, with the singers for the most part in simple black attire, the sardonic humor, terrifying brutality, and insinuating beauties of Berg’s score emerged in breathtaking clarity. The downfall of the opera’s title character — a military barber haunted and provoked beyond the limits of endurance — has seldom felt so pitiless.

No one who has followed Salonen’s career could have been surprised. The Finnish composer and conductor is one of the music world’s great intellects, a forceful, cogent leader at the top of his game. Now conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic after 17 years as its music director, he is currently in his fifth season as principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Saturday’s event was just one aspect of the weekend residency, which previewed Thursday with an all-Salonen program performed by the Calder Quartet; officially launched on Friday with Salonen conducting Beethoven, Berlioz, and his own Helix; and concluded Sunday with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

Still, Salonen’s affinity for Wozzeck is something special. In his hands, the 100-plus member orchestra, augmented by members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, sounded like a streamlined, burnished instrument. The conductor drove with unerring precision through Berg’s wrenching, uninterrupted 95-minute score, delivering a reading in which every element — conductor, orchestra, cast, and two choruses — came together with astonishing depth and potency.

Wozzeck, based on Georg Büchner’s 1821 play, elicits a range of emotions unique in opera. The title character’s torments — heaped on him by a hectoring, delusional captain, a cruel doctor who subjects him to arcane experiments and extreme dietary restrictions, and the unfaithful common-law wife who has borne his son — render him both pitiful and frightening. No wonder he sees blood everywhere he looks, and his haunted outbursts register like the cries of a wounded beast. The opera’s horrific outcome has the inevitability of Greek tragedy, cast in the blunt modernity of the 20th century.

Berg’s score, which skillfully interweaves atonality and consonance, ratchets the tension at every turn, and Salonen brought each brooding soliloquy, dreamlike interlude, mordant march, and violent outburst into sharp relief. Yet Wozzeck has moments of ineffable delicacy, and this conductor never lets you forget that it’s a product of the symphonic tradition. Act 2 assumed a Mahlerian grandeur, and the riveting climax of the final orchestral interlude was shattering.

The cast was magnificent, particularly in the principal roles. Johan Reuter’s Wozzeck was a powerhouse. The Copenhagen-born artist’s large, focused instrument is appealingly dark, rounded and consistently strong; Reuter’s vocalism melded with an air of wounded humanity, an otherworldly gaze, and a sense of barely suppressed animal rage. His portrayal was less volatile than some, yet somehow more affecting for the restraint.

Angela Denoke was ideally cast as Marie, Wozzeck’s doomed wife. The German soprano’s effortless projection and gleaming top notes were assets throughout, as was her idiomatic phrasing in the opera’s sung, spoken, and Sprechtstimme episodes — Salonen responded with a smile several times during her scenes — and she captured the character’s erotic longing, her love for her child, and presentiment of her fate in bold strokes.

Peter Hoare’s small stature and big voice yielded an indelible Captain, and Hubert Francis was an aptly loutish Drum Major. Tijl Faveyts lacked a measure of bite as the fanatical Doctor, but Joshua Ellicott was a sympathetic Andres. Capable support came from Henry Waddington’s imposing First Apprentice, Eddie Wade’s Second Apprentice, Anna Burford’s Margaret, and Harry Nicoll’s Idiot. Zachary Mamis was Marie's child; in the denouement, members of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir sang with lovely purity of tone. Marika Kuzma’s UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus acquitted itself handsomely in the choral parts.

Saturday’s performance of Wozzeck marked the second time in a fortnight that Cal Performances, under director Matías Tarnopolsky, has presented a 20th century operatic masterwork. At the end of October, the organization gave the West Coast premiere of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. Opera lovers can only hope the trend continues.

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