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Degenerate Wozzeck Regenerated


Christine Goerke (Winslow Townson photo)

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (written 1917-1922) has for decades been recognized as one of the most important operas composed by anyone since Wagner and Verdi, but it had to make its way slowly in the world because of its unprecedented performance difficulty; there’s a legend, much exaggerated, that the premiere, conducted in Berlin by Erich Kleiber in 1925, required 137 rehearsals, and a better-verified report that Pierre Boulez’s Paris production in 1964 needed 40 rehearsals with orchestra. The American premiere, directed by Stokowski, took place in Philadelphia in 1931, and Mitropoulos’s concert performances in New York in 1952 were the basis of the first recording, but the Metropolitan Opera didn’t produce Wozzeck until 1958. The Boston Symphony’s only prior Symphony Hall performances came in April 1987, semi-staged on a T-shaped platform built over the orchestra (Benjamin Luxon and Hildegard Behrens took principal roles), with Ozawa conducting); Erich Leinsdorf  led TMCO in the opera in Tanglewood in 1969. Because it was the only work on the concert, I got an exceptional amount of space, on 20 pages, for program notes [HERE].  Robert Kirzinger’s useful, newly written essay takes up only six pages.)

In Thursday’s vocally excellent concert performance singers walked on and off as stage directions required, and the principals, Wozzeck and Marie (Bo Skovhus and Christine Goerke, projected gesturally and dramatically with no little success. Otherwise, the lack of staging made for serious limitations, especially in balance of sound. Often the singers could barely be heard over the orchestra, which is nearly as large as Strauss’s in Elektra. Goerke’s top register several times wobbled in vibrato at peak volume, and Skovhus’s angry baritone sometimes broke down into mere shouting. (It isn’t only for reasons of vocal intensity and volume that correct pitches often went out the window; this is a regular feature of today’s performances.) The military march (Act I scene 3) is supposed to be offstage, and Marie’s slamming the window shut, cutting off the sound, is a fine moment of sonic realism, but here the band was within the orchestra and the effect of sudden change was missed. Similarly, the chamber orchestra of 15 instruments could not be differentiated spatially (in the 1987 production at the Vienna State Opera, this small group of players was seated on stage with a partition separating them from Wozzeck and Marie), and so the dynamic difference was only partially apparent. Nevertheless, one knows and accepts these built-in problems if one knows the opera.

Bo Skovhus (Winslow Townson photo)

Last night made apparent the extent to which the orchestra itself is a main protagonist in Wozzeck. The famous interludes illustrate this basis most convincingly, as for instance the long (20 bars) symphonic twilight after Act I scene 2 (Wozzeck and his buddy Andres gathering sticks), which emerges from the three-chord harmonic motive only gradually with delicate expressiveness, or the furious, desperate fff crescendo after Act II scene 1 (Stravinsky, referring to “the orchestral flagellation of the interludes,” probably meant this one). A large portion of the actual drama breaks up the orchestration into discontinuous gestures and isolated events, but many of these are memorable: the sudden change from fff (three different diminished-seventh chords simultaneously) to pp (C major triad in muted strings), depicting the “ordinariness of money” in Act II scene 1; the prestissimo pizzicato in divided strings (Act I scene 4) which was wonderful to watch; the high G sharp in solo double bass amid the chorus of snoring soldiers (Act II scene 5), echoed a moment later by Wozzeck moaning in his sleep; the four ff timpani tuned in a segment of a chromatic scale in Act I scene 2; the shriek of two E-flat clarinets in unison in Act III scene 1; the unexpectedly Wagnerian augmented-sixth progression at mm. 268-271 in Act II scene 2, in muted strings with trills.

A large segment of the critical press in 1925 expressed furious hostility to the music, and the Nazis suppressed it as “degenerate” soon after the premiere; but the opera has made an undeniable a success with the greater public, in city after city in productions that followed, ever since, and this is because of Berg’s extraordinarily original dramatic gift. This music, no matter how harsh, or seemingly crude or unformed, is always perfectly in tune with the senses, and with the beauty of utter strangeness. At the same time, musicians all around the world have found the structure of the score itself — which Berg coyly claimed were his own private affair — an endless fascination and intellectual challenge: fugues, passacaglias, sonata forms, inventions upon inventions, numerology, and Wagnerian leitmotives.

When I last wrote about the BSO a few weeks ago, all the players except the winds were masked; last night only a handful on stage wore masks. This is a hopeful sign for winding-down of COVID, even while the audience, filling about three-fourths of the hall, remained fully and strictly covered. This maskulature concealed some of the audience’s reaction to the performance, though most of the people were on their feet at the end. One senses that even those who had never heard it before understood a lot. There were plenty of cheers for the singers, all of them: besides Goerke and Skovhus, the gibbering Captain (Toby Spence), the megalomaniac Doctor (Franz Hawlata), the two drunken Apprentices (Zachary Altman and David Kravitz), the mellifluous Andres (Mauro Peter), the goonlike Drum Major (Christopher Ventris) — a perfect insane asylum for a cast. And even the minor roles shone: Margret (Renée Tatum), the Idiot (Alex Richardson), and Marie’s little boy (Linus Schafer Goulthorpe, who held Marie’s Bible in Act III scene 1).

Andris Nelsons gets high marks for expertly controlling Berg’s very complicated score. As a conductor who has spent plenty of time directing opera, he knows the pitfalls as well as the profundities of this one. His beat was clear and precise and alert at every moment and the orchestra responded with confidence.  Combined cast and orchestra will take it to Carnegie Hall on the 15th; we should expect to hear more echoes of praise from those who compare recent performances of Wozzeck at the Met.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thanks, Mark. I’m seeing this at Carnegie in NYC Tuesday night.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 12, 2022 at 2:21 pm

  2. Before the review was posted, I asked Mark, “The one thing I noted was how the tonal quality of her last aria was almost Mahler-like in its melody, so different from all the preceding…”

    His response is, of course, illuminating: “Marie’s aria (“Es war einmal ein armes Kind…”) in Act III scene 1 is the first time a key signature (four flats, F minor) appears in the score of Wozzeck. That music (from mm. 33-39) comes from an early piano piece that he never finished, dating even before his Piano Sonata op. 1. Lovely passage.”

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — March 12, 2022 at 3:38 pm

  3. It was a great show. Bo Skovhus, whom I had never seen or heard before, is a superb body actor. Despite the constraints of the concert performance he conveyed, by his bearing, his walking, his facial expressions and his gestures all the anguish Wozzeck experienced.

    With respect to the sub-ensembles, I for one had no difficulty making out the tavern band in Act II Scene IV, which was seated offstage (and the assistant conductor’s shadow on the door made for quite the expressionistic effect).

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 12, 2022 at 4:56 pm

  4. I hope the BSO’s next two performances come together better than the brash runthrough I heard Thursday evening. Nelsons’ approach frequently overpowered the singers, who visibly struggled to be heard. Mark’s review justly commends the richly imagined expressivity of Berg’s score, but too many details were lost in the general din, which also drowned out the individual qualities of the singers’ voices. (I would say that Christine Goerke won her sonic battle with the orchestra, but with some loss of pure intonation, as Mark noted)
    I also have a question: How should a performance of Wozzeck embody or reflect the character of the distinct musical forms associated with each of the opera’s scenes? I suspect that a performance of Wozzeck in 1920’s Vienna would have tried to address this dimension of Berg’s vision. . . .

    Comment by Jonathan Cheney — March 12, 2022 at 5:55 pm

  5. How can a review of this massive undertaking fail to mention the conductor? Unless I’ve missed it, I see no reference to Nelsons or his shaping of the opera, other than stating balances were off due to the orchestra and singers all being on the stage (no pit).

    Comment by R Lhevinne — March 13, 2022 at 8:57 am

  6. Mysteriously missing concluding paragraph now present thanks to Rosina’s comment.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 13, 2022 at 1:52 pm

  7. The Carnegie performance last night was wonderful, even if the voices were indeed occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, and I wish that more had been made in staging of Marie’s murder. I have to wonder if Wozzeck works better on radio or recordings because the engineers can step up or down the levels on the orchestra and bring out the voices more. And yet, I heard so many new details last night that I never heard in Boulez’s 1966 CBS recording, which I have loved for 40 years or more. Overall, a great show.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 16, 2022 at 6:15 pm

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