Coda: Love at Second Sight

by FRED COHN

Coda Wozzeck sm 1014
Transcendent: Behrens as Marie, with Jonathan Press
© Beth Bergman 2014
 

This winter I had the chance to take in — avidly — three performances of Wozzeck. For me, this was remarkable for more than just the only-in-New-York coincidence of it. (The Vienna State Opera’s Carnegie Hall concert version arrived just days before the Met revived its 1997 Mark Lamos production.) It has also been an index of how my tastes have evolved over the years. 

As a young listener, I fell in love with any number of operas, immediately and passionately. Most of Wagner and Richard Strauss fell into that category; so did practically all of Verdi. But Wozzeck most emphatically did not. I always knew it was a seminal work, and as a serious young listener, I paid it due attention — first, as a teenager, on disc; then, in my twenties, at the Met. I studied a diagram of the musical structure of the three acts, but I really couldn’t hear the opera’s formal components: the music was too difficult, too unrevealing to my untrained ears. The diagram told me there was orderin Wozzeck, but all I heard was chaos.   

 Then there was the subject matter. Sure, I was used to the depiction of horrible circumstances in opera: could anything be worse than Cio-Cio-San’s fate? But Puccini bathes Butterfly’s tragedy in a wash of romantic melody. The realm of Wozzeck, on the other hand, is unremittingly sordid. Berg’s dissonances — intolerably harsh to my naïve ears — describe a world bereft of the possibility of joy or redemption. How could a young man, still anticipating the joys that life held in store, relate to this grim opera?

George Balanchine laid the groundwork. The most musically alert choreographer who ever drew breath, he famously urged audiences to “see the music, hear the dance.” His ballets, while being exquisite aesthetic objects in their own right, are also sophisticated essays in musical analysis. When I moved to the city and became a regular New York City Ballet-goer, I came to love Balanchine’s settings of music by Hindemith, Webern and, of course, Stravinsky. It was Balanchine who taught me to look beyond the three seminal early Stravinsky ballet scores — The Firebird, Pétrouchka and The Rite of Spring — and learn to appreciate later, knottier pieces such as the Violin Concerto, the Symphony in Three Movements and, above all, Agon, whose great pas de deuxmarks the moment when Stravinsky embraced the twelve-tone method of Arnold Schoenberg. Balanchine’s setting made the music seem as lyrical as Mozart. 

Balanchine at one point planned a Salome ballet on the Lulu Suite, but unfortunately it didn’t come to pass; he never choreographed a note of Berg’s music. Still, he opened the world of modern music for me. Much that I had found abstruse and confusing now felt cogent and compelling. It is because of Balanchine that I now relish not just Wozzeck but Lulu, Moses und Aron and Erwartung — not to mention The Rake’s Progress.  

My ears opened, I began to understand Berg’s musical logic. I could now grasp that the scene with the Captain, the Doctor and Wozzeck indeed settled into a fugue. In Marie’s Bible reading, with its “theme and seven variations,” I could hear the musical argument working its way, almost obsessively, through restatements of the initial harmonic material — and moreover realized that Marie’s vocal line was every bit as wrenchingly expressive as Elektra’s monologue. Most important, the strain of dark lyricism that runs through the work registered so clearly that I wondered how I could possibly have missed it before. 

So, too, did I start to accept the composer’s (and Georg Büchner’s) dramaturgy. It wasn’t that I had exactly become more pessimistic. But I now knew that the world was full of the kind of cruelties this opera describes. 

If I had one conversion moment, it was at a 1999 Wozzeck matinée, with James Levine leading a cast headed by Franz Grundheber and a transcendent Hildegard Behrens, in what proved to be her last Met performance. I was sitting in a cheap but fabulous seat — the very first balcony box, overhanging the orchestra. When Levine led the band into the work’s grand, Mahlerian final interlude, with its massed, luxuriant sound hitting me square in the face, I all but tumbled over into the pit below. How could I ever have found this music to be anything other than magnificent? Wozzeck was now mine

And so it remains. Each of the three performances I recently saw — one at Carnegie, two at the Met (with two different Wozzecks) — was unique. But all three held me riveted. Perhaps it’s the very complexity of the piece that keeps me coming back. I feel I could listen to this opera forever and never entirely plumb its depths; at each encounter, new details emerge, new areas for exploration. My passion for the work is hardly a case of love at first sight, but it may be all the more intense because of the time it took to develop. spacer

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4