Berg’s “Wozzeck” at Santa Fe Opera

Wednesday, August 17
Santa Fe Opera offers a superb production of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck”
Review by David Gregson


If composer Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is intended to be an Everyman figure, and I believe he is, Everyman is wandering around in a delusional state on the brink of madness. He is mercilessly exploited by people who are even crazier than he is, even though they all fancy themselves to be sane. Berg’s work seems to suggest that perhaps everyone on earth is mad — and they know it, too — but they try to maintain a pose that seems like normalcy to others. Wozzeck, however, is out of control.

The character of Wozzeck, of course, is taken more or less intact from “Woyzeck,” Georg Büchner’s stage play which was first given in 1913 in Munich. The entire German Expressionist movement owes something to Büchner’s work, and it is easy to think of Berg’s complex musical/dramatic masterpiece as a German Expressionist opera. Musically, it is the single greatest opera to emerge from the so-called Second Viennese School of progressive “atonal and or/serial” composition established by Arnold Schoenberg and his associates.

I call Wozzeck an Everyman, but he is more specifically intended to represent the poor, the so-called little man whose life is determined by military and capitalist “superiors.” In the history of literature and art, however, he is bigger than a poor or little man: he is a classic embodiment of the alienated “modern man” (20th-century man, if you wish), most familiar to us as Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. I think that Kafka sense of alienation has carried well over into the present time.

Though the music most often strikes the beginner listener as chaotic and utterly atonal, Berg meticulously constructs each scene around some unifying, often neoclassical form, and the orchestra is endlessly painting tone pictures that match the subjects of the text. If mice are mentioned, we hear mice in the orchestra — and there are hundreds of similar examples. There are also leitmotivs, several big ones, the most notable of which undergoes an colossal Mahlerian statement a few minutes before the final curtain. It “makes” the opera, really, and is utterly cathartic. It seems to embrace all human suffering.

Each time I hear this opera, I admire it more and more — and I am always discovering something new. The wonderful acoustic environment in Santa Fe serves the listener well, especially when a conductor like David Robertson is in control. One heard marvelous details often slurred over or lost in the storm. Robertson gave a highly dramatic and at the same time curiously introspective reading of the score. For contrast hear the propulsive approach of James Levine. Many recordings exist in which fast-forward drive takes precedent over a probing relationship between music and text. Robertson’s approach is virtually unique.

The Robert Innes Hopkins production is a stunner. It evolves from what looks like a series of cheap, ordinary wooden board-and-batten sliding panels into a mad universe of the same sort of panels tilting every which way on an enormous scale. The wooden walls go mad in time with the story. By the time the giant bloody red moon has risen, everyone in the cast emerges as white-faced, terrorized victims of a planet falling off its axis.

The Wozzeck of baritone Richard Paul Fink is painful to watch. He sings the role superbly, of course, but he is in such an extreme state of torment from the start of the opera, he seems to have almost nowhere to go with it. He goes there anyway in a singularly powerful performance.

His first torturer is his Captain (the superb Robert Brubaker) who offers an unnerving talkathon whilst being shaved; his second tormentor is his doctor (the truly superlative Eric Owens) who thinks he will become famous by conducting his insane experiments on Wozzeck (for which the bewildered soldier receives a regular payment — similar to selling blood); and his third tormentor is the Drum Major (the imposing looking and impressive sounding Stuart Skelton) who is seducing the worse tormentor of all, Wozzeck’s wife Marie (the intense but often shrill sounding Nicola Beller Carbone).

Wozzeck has one long-suffering friend, Andres, sung and acted with great delicacy by Jason Slayden (who had sung Rodolfo the night before as a last-minute replacement.)

Director Daniel Slater makes the most of this expressionist nightmare. In fact, it many ways evokes the imagery of the famous German Expressionist silent film, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari”. He expands the role of the fool, making this character a projection of Wozzeck’s murderous insanity. He also brings the actual orchestral musicians up on stage in several scenes, always to great effect. He also uses the back wall that opens to the actual New Mexico mountains and desert, always an effective move in this beautiful venue.

Some patrons in the audience behaved very badly, timing their conspicuous departures to coincide perfectly with the opera’s most intense and/or moving moments! However, the final response of the crowd as a whole shows this opera has the power to move listeners — and to move them deeply inside themselves, not just out the doors of the theater.

Marie – Nicola Beller Carbone
The Captain – Robert Brusker
Andres – Jason Sallied
Margret – Patricia Risley
Wozzeck – Richard Paul Fink
The Doctor – Eric Owens
The Drum Major – Stuart Skelton
The Fool – Randall Bills
A Soldier – Joe Shadday

Conductor – David Robertson
Director – Daniel Slater
Scenic Designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Costume Designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer – Rick Fisher
Choreographer – John Carrafa

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