Wozzeck at Los Angeles

One took place in Berkeley, (see OT), one in Los Angeles
(about which further) and one is scheduled for New York.

Why Wozzeck? It’s an opera largely unknown to the usual opera
going public and therefore likely to be box office poison. It’s an opera,
unknown as well, to many musicians. Two Philharmonia instrumentalists commented
on never having played the work before, and not liking it when they began
rehearsals. Yet Maestro Salonen deliberately chose to perform the work on this
tour. “I wanted to do something that has been very central in my life and in
my repertoire for all those years, yet something that I haven’t performed in
the United States.” he said. “And Wozzeck was one of those pieces — the
first opera I ever conducted in my life. I was still in my twenties…and it
has been absolutely central to me since.”

To any opera goer, who has been resistant to Wozzeck and to “the so-called
atonal style” (a term used by Berg in discussing the opera), a statement like
the above by a musician of Salonen’s status, should be reason enough to
search out and listen to the work. But Salonen offered an even more compelling
reason. “Wozzeck” he observed, is “one of the most powerful
things composed by anybody. It’s hugely emotional, hugely dramatic and hugely
tragic — with moments of humor, great tenderness and deepest despair
….It’s one of the most powerful experiences you can have in a concert

Wozzeck — a quick overview — the libretto: The plot is not
much. You’ve heard or read the story every day in whatever media you
follow.“Lover/husband kills girlfriend/wife — defense pleads
insanity.”And indeed it was the 1824 execution of a Leipzig ex-soldier named
Woyzeck, for whom one of the first ever insanity pleas was offered, (and
denied) that inspired a young writer named Georg B¸chner to begin writing a
play on the subject.B¸chner composed 23 sketches – essentially character
sketches and brief encounters, but never completed the work. Young and radical,
B¸chner, who died in 1837 at the age of 23, was struck by what he saw as
oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful. His well-to-do, powerful, self
centered and cruel authority figures, a Doctor, an army Captain, and Drum
Major, exploit, manipulate and destroy the impoverished and powerless Woyzeck
and his wife. In the play, as in the opera, Woyzeck kills his wife and then
drowns. B¸chner’s incomplete and disordered sketches were eventually put
together by others to form a play first performed seventy-six years after his
death, in 1913. Immediately upon seeing the play, Berg determined to turn it
into an opera. He chose fifteen of B¸chner’s sketches and reordered them
into three acts. Wozzeck (Berg changed the name) premiered in 1925,
nearly a century after the playwright’s death.

The music- quickly again, though it’s information you don’t need in
order to enjoy the opera. To accomplish that, you need only to listen and
listen again.

As you’d expect much has been written about Berg’s genius in making a
coherent musical whole of this disjointed text. He was a member of the Viennese
School, led by Arnold Schoenberg, which in Berg’s own words had theretofore
been “restricted to the creation of small forms such as songs, piano pieces
and orchestral pieces.” In his detailed 1929 discussion of Wozzeck
he describes the harmonic and structural techniques he employed to produce a
large, cohesive work “without using tonality and the formal possibilities
which spring from it.”

But don’t let Berg scare you. His music offers points of rest and
coherency. Berg drew his audience’s attention to the harmony at the end of
each act. “The point in a tonal composition at which the return to and
establishment of the main key is made clear, so that it is recognizable to the
eyes and ears of even the layman, must also be the point at which the harmonic
circle closes in an atonal work. This sense of closure was first of all ensured
by having each act of the opera steer towards one and the same closing chord, a
chord that acted in the manner of a cadence and that was dwelled on as if on a
tonic.”Berg employed the tonal feature of repeated Bs heard in every range,
every instrument, and every dynamic associated with love and death in Third
Act. There is dance music played by an accordion, a guitar and an out of tune
piano in the ensuing tavern scene.And there’s Marie’s tender lullaby, a
melody I assure you, it’s possible to keep in your head.

Berg’s lengthy lecture about the construction of Wozzeck reads
the way Sergio Pininfarina might have sounded explaining how he put his latest
Ferrari together. Fascinating — but to us ordinary folk, the power, the
emotion, the pleasure derives not from the blueprint, but from the product

The performance: Maestro Salonen’s affection and affinity for
Wozzeck was made patently clear in this staged version of the opera.
It was performed straight through with only brief pauses at the end of each act
for the conductor to sit quietly and have some water. A large screen with
English titles was visible throughout the house. The male singers were dressed
alike in black pants and shirts, the two women, Marie and her friend, Margret
wore long, elegant garments. The singers seemed closely supervised by Salonen,
who faced them quite often and quite specifically cued them.

This was a unique performance of Wozzeck that would enhance
anyone’s appreciation of the work in greatest part because of Salonen’s
extraordinary intensity and attention to musical detail. However, the
particular visual aspects of the Walt Disney Concert Hall were a factor as
well. In this venue, where a large part of the audience can look directly down
onto a well lit orchestra, it was possible to see how some of the opera’s
most emotional moments were created: the single violist accompanying a vocal
line, or the two percussionists slamming at a single timpani at a cataclysmic

Salonen’s animated conducting style generally evokes comments by
reviewers. What struck me most was his stance for instant cut-offs. Turned
toward his left and the singers, he would stop sideways on the podium — and
slash his baton toward the orchestra like a swordsman holding off a threatening

Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter was a powerful and moving Wozzeck. His
large well focused voice served him as well for tender moments, as for fury.
His lumbering unsteady gait entering and leaving the stage suited the
character. As Marie, Wozzeck’s wife, German soprano Angela Denoke, who had
vocal problems two years ago, sounded as if those were well in the past. Her
large lyric voice rang effortlessly throughout its range and her acting
captured both Marie’s affection for Wozzeck and their child, as well as her
attraction to the Drum Major. British tenor Peter Hoare, who began his musical
life as a percussionist, made a clear-voiced, suitably nasty Captain. Hubert
Francis, dressed more smartly than the townspeople in white-tie and tails, was
appropriately cocky, then fierce as the Drum Major. Kevin Burdette, a young
American bass, who flew in the morning of the Los Angeles performance to
replace Tijl Faveyts, sang the Doctor fluently — occasionally with the aid of
score. Joshua Ellicott, as Andres, Anna Burford, as Margret, and Zachary Mamis,
as Marie’s child, were excellent in smaller roles, as were Henry Waddington,
Eddie Wade and Harry Nicoll. The UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and the Piedmont
East Bay Children’s Choir were impressive. Instrumentalist of the UC Berkeley
Symphony contributed to the performance as well.

It should be noted that Wozzeck was not the only work that Maestro Salonen
and the Philharmonia are performing on their tour, and that the tour includes
many more cities than the above three named. The orchestra’s performance in
San Diego of Mahler’s 9th Symphony was another example of Salonen’s ability
to elucidate the emotional elements of a profound musical work.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and Production

Johan Reuter: Wozzeck; Angela Denoke:Marie; Hubert Francis: The Drum-Major;
Joshua Ellicott:Andres; Peter Hoare:the Captain; Kevin Burdette:the Doctor;
Henry Waddington:First Apprentice; Eddie Wade:Second Apprentice; Harry
Nicoll:an Idiot;Anna Burford:Margret; Zachary Mamis, Marie’s Child

Philharmonia Orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. David Milnes, director. UC
Berkeley Chamber Chorus. Marika Kuzma, director. Members of Piedmont East Bay
Children’s Choir. Robert Geary, director. Sue Bolin: conductor.

image_description=Johan Reuter [Photo courtesy of Michael Storrs Music]
product_title=Wozzeck at Los Angeles
product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson
product_id=Above: Johan Reuter [Photo courtesy of Michael Storrs Music]