Monday November 19, 2012 - The Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen (above) offered a concert performance of Alban Beg's WOZZECK at Avery Fisher Hall. Incredibly, it was the first time I have experienced this opera in a live performance that was conducted by someone other than James Levine.
The particpating artists:
Westminster Choir - Joe Miller, director
The American Boychoir - Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, music director
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Simon Keenlyside Wozzeck
Angela Denoke Marie
Hubert Francis Drum Major
Joshua Ellicott Andres
Peter Hoare Captain
Tijl Faveyts Doctor
Henry Waddington First Apprentice
Eddie Wade: Second Apprentice
Harry Nicoll Idiot
Anna Burford Margret
The performance was compelling both in the awe-inspiring magnificence of the orchestral playing and in the powerful simplicity of the semi-staging: the singers, clad in contemporary everyday chic, moved thru the drama in a narrow space at the lip of the stage. Direct and uncomplicated in its presentation. the drama was expressed with stripped-down clarity. Thanks to a cast of singing-actors each vividly inhabiting his or her character, this tale of madness, despair, bullying and betrayal cast its extraordinary spell.
The score unfolded under Maestro Salonen's baton like a vast dark tapestry; individual orchestral voices shoot thru the fabric of sound like shimmering threads. As in SALOME, the musical imagery often evokes moonlight seen thru sooty, scudding clouds...but here the moon is blood-red. The conductor struck an ideal balance of unleashing the insane power of the orchestra yet never overwhelming his singers. The cumulative effect was electrifying..
In the early scenes of the opera, dark comedy runs rampant: the Captain and the Doctor who hold Wozzeck their mental hostage are so deranged and their words so far-fetched as to evoke laughter. Brilliant characterzations from Peter Hoare and Tijl Faveyts respectively set their vignettes in high relief. Hubert Francis was the swaggering bully of a Drum Major and Joshua Ellicott as Andres - one of Wozzeck's few links to normalcy - sang with clarity. Anna Burford as Margret delivered her Swabia-lied with drunken blowsiness; Harry Nicoll was an eerily happy Idiot. I took special pleasure in the robustly earthy singing of Henry Waddlington and Eddie Ware as the two apprentices. Their scene simply crackled with verbal and vocal power and they steered clear of the comic cliches of acting out drunkiness, making their performances all the more impressive.
Angela Denoke, a soprano still talked-about in Gotham for her only Met performances (a series of Marschallins in 2005) was a wonderfully feminine and vunerable Marie. For all her toughness ("better a knife in my heart than lay a hand on me"), Marie is a marvelously human woman torn between desire and guilt, and Ms. Denoke's portrayal struck an ideal balance while providing vocalism of gleaming lyricism and intriguing colours. She now proudly joins my gallery of memorable portrayals of this character over the years: Janis Martin, Anja Silja, Hildegard Behrens, Katarina Dalayman and Waltraud Meier.
As Wozzeck, Simon Keenlyside enjoyed a great personal triumph. Hurling himself into the drama with a dazzling affiinity for the expressive physical manifestations of madness and with tortured facial responses to Wozzeck's downward spiral, the baritone sang with unfettered power and a full palette of vocal colours which he drew upon to project the character's ravaged humanity. Keenlyside's performance was nothing short of perfection.
And so, one of the most thrilling nights of opera in recent seasons...and the proof of it was in the utter silence of the audience in those unexpected stillnesses that Berg applies from time to time. They are as key to the dark glory of WOZZECK as the shocking power of the great post-murder crescendos. Salonen and his mighty forces gave us an exciting evening, reaffirming the still-powerful desire of the New York public for meaningful operatic experiences.