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Esa-Pekka Salonen & Philharmonia Orchestra | Avery Fisher Hall
Wozzeck at Lincoln Center, with Salonen, Ellicott and Keenlyside
© Stephanie Berger 2013
Although it was billed as "opera in concert," the November 19 performance of Wozzeck at Avery Fisher Hall was staged from beginning to end. The principals had neither chairs nor music stands; singing "off-book," they made their entrances and exits from the wings, using the lip of the concert platform as an acting space. The absence of scores gave the singers the opportunity for unfettered interaction, as well as removing a barrier between performers and audience. Still, the stunning dramatic impact of this performance was due not to any stage business but to the superb realization of Berg's score by a first-rate cast and London's Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen.
In Salonen's hands, the work's big moments had a huge impact; for example, the leering brass chords that accompany the mating of Marie and the Drum Major here sounded with ferocious lewdness. But his reading overwhelmingly brought out the lyricism that lies at the work's core. Orchestral textures were iridescent, transparent even at the most cacophonous moments. The work's musical argument unfolded inexorably but with nuance and delicacy. Ninety years after its premiere, Wozzeck remains a difficult opera for some listeners: a few audience members, presumably unprepared for Berg's musical language, tromped out early on. But the rest of us could only marvel at the strange beauty of this score.
Salonen's deeply musical approach to the opera was bolstered by the scrupulous work of his singers. Simon Keenlyside sang the title role, applying the gifts that make him such a wonderful singer of lieder. The British baritone's physical demeanor may have been a shade overemphatic: his Wozzeck had the mien of a near-catatonic simpleton. But he clearly wanted to establish a dichotomy between the soldier's dull-witted affect and the rich inner life that he revealed with every note he sang. He made Wozzeck's music sound like an outgrowth of German Romanticism. By singing the role with the soulfulness he brings to Schumann and Brahms, Keenlyside revealed the passionate nature that drives Wozzeck to his unhappy fate.
Angela Denoke was a near-ideal Marie. Her stage manner was commanding but restrained: by never begging for our sympathy, she made the character all the more sympathetic. Her tone combined astringency with sweetness; when she sang her lullaby, one heard not just the tenderness of her affection for her child but the daunting hardness of her lot in life. Her liaison with the Drum Major was the act not of a nihilistic slut but of a woman so downtrodden that she lacked the strength to avoid her own doom.
Peter Hoare used his incisive tenor and crystalline diction to create a sharply etched portrayal of the Captain. Tijl Faveyts was a relatively mild Doctor — goofy rather than terrifying — but he voiced the role's treacherous intervals fearlessly. Hubert Francis brought less vocal brawn to the Drum Major than other singers usually do, but he compensated through crisp vocal attack: when he taunted Wozzeck in the barracks, each syllable had the impact of a hammer stroke. Joshua Ellicott was a stalwart, sympathetic Andres and Anna Burford a properly blowsy Margret.
Salonen presented the three acts of the opera without intermission. The effect was to engross us so completely that when he laid down his baton at the end, it was a jolt to reenter quotidian reality. Leaving Lincoln Center, I listened to the sounds of a New York evening through the prism of Berg's music. This is what great art does: it informs the world around it.
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