San Diego Opera Presents Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck”

April 15: Review by David Gregson.
Photo credits below.

Alban Berg’s opera, Wozzeck, first performed in 1925, is a work of such enormous musical complexity that few people can hope to understand it all, even after repeated listening. Like those enormous Gothic cathedrals that command our respect and awe, Wozzeck contains lovingly crafted details that will forever remain beyond our ken. Even conductors who pore over the music repeatedly discover new things each time they open the covers of the score.

Berg composed Wozzeck in an atonal/serial style that was revolutionary at the beginning of the 20th century, but he carefully structured many scenes according to familiar classical models. Those who love this opera (this listener among them) grasp more and more of these structural aspects at each exposure. Perhaps the easiest clues are the leitmotivs (signature tunes) associated with the characters and with ideas. No Wagnerian is a stranger to this compositional device.

Not long after the loss of one’s Wozzeck virginity, one finds many things come into focus. Berg’s first act, for instance, contains a suite, a rhapsody, a hunting song, a march, a lullaby, a passacaglia and a rondo. Even a neophyte is likely to pick up on three of these forms — the song, the march, and the lullaby. Closer study is needed to hear the rest.

Berg’s models for the second act create further listening challenges through his use of sonata form, a fantasia and fugue on three themes, a largo, scherzo, and a rondo. The powerful final act segues from an “invention” on a theme (the doomed Marie’s Bible reading) through an utterly unforgettable double-crescendo after Marie’s murder (a smashing “invention” on the single note of B). Then there is an invention on a rhythm (the dances of the tavern scene), a monumental romantic statement flirting with the key of D minor (the heartbreaking final interlude), and the final pathos laden “hop-hop” perpetual motion idea on an eighth note.

Meanwhile, the drama itself is largely transparent, and, however distasteful it may be, easy to follow. Berg based his libretto on Woyzeck, an early 19th-century stage play by Georg Büchner. Because of its unprecedented examination of lower, working class characters – and because of its influence on the great artistic movement known as German expressionism — Woyzeck is widely regarded as one of the most important works of modern theater. Today it survives not only as a play but as a film by Werner Herzog – but the opera is the one true masterpiece.

As a close friend and colleague remarked to me after the opening performance last night, this Wozzeck is “a stretch” for San Diego Opera. On the whole, the San Diego concert-going community is conservative in its tastes, and even though Wozzeck has entered the standard repertory world-wide, it’s not likely to show up here again anytime soon. Civic Theatre did not look exactly packed to overflowing last night (ticket sales must be rough)– and yet, somehow the piece seemed to get a warm reception, one that slowly evolved into one of those indecisive pop-up-here, pop-up-there standing ovations. At least people were not throwing tomatoes and cabbages, and the cast and production folks all took multiple bows.

Much of the public demonstration was no doubt directed at Tony Award ® winner Des McAnuff, long-time eminence of the La Jolla Playhouse, whose first operatic directorial assignment this was. Working with scenic designer, Robert Brill, one of the founders of our local Sledgehammer theater, McAnuff came up with a 24-foot-high skeleton structure of steel, wood and Plexiglass, all of which was mounted on a noisy revolving turntable. This set, as remarkable as it was to behold, became an unwelcome distraction in every sense of the word, especially during Berg’s transitional intermezzi in which the opera abounds. Compounding the distractions were video designer Dustin O’Neill’s transitional projections, mostly black-and-white photo portraits of the opera’s anti-hero, but including water and cloud animations, and one striking sequence in which Marie appears framed by one of Wozzeck’s eyes. The video concept was sound, and the execution (partly the work of the superb lighting designer, Stephen Terry) was excellent – but combined with the turntable rumble, it reduced the impact of Berg’s score, especially during the aforementioned double-crescendo on the note of B and during the very heart of the opera itself – Berg’s emotional D-minor outburst.

With the orchestra obviously being of such extreme importance, Wozzeck requires a top-flight symphonic ensemble and a brilliant conductor. The SDO’s resident maestro, Karen Keltner, seems forever saddled with the most difficult projects the management can devise, and this Wozzeck was another one of them. Knowing her (and respecting her), I am certain she was thrilled to have a crack at this score, one that she undoubtedly admires. But this is another one of those SDO “stretches” my friend and colleague had in mind: the San Diego Symphony worked hard and well and so did Keltner, but this did not amount (last night a least) to what I would call a powerful performance. I admit that where one sits in Civic Theatre is a vital factor in judging “the band in the pit.” From my vantage point in the orchestra seats (around Row R), I could not make out many of the details I usually listen for, and the brass seemed underwhelming. Yet, my friend (cited now for the third time in this review!) said he thought the orchestra covered the voices from time to time. He was in Row N. (I am awaiting another expert report from the top balcony and will add it to this review when I get it!)

To return to the set, McAnuff was able to make good and effective use of it in many places: the famous scene with the sleeping soldiers in the barracks; the doctor’s study, perfectly suggesting a medical amphitheater; and the scenes in front of Marie’s house. The set also included a huge light-studded disk that suggested, among other things, both solar and lunar movements, and which was cleverly utilized throughout

The set was also highly suggestive of the upper half of one of those infamous W.B.Yeatsian gyres – Yeats’ symbol for millennial movements from thesis to antithesis, Christ to anti-Christ. I have no idea if this was deliberate on Brill’s part, but it fits the libretto perfectly. Man’s time on earth, the passage of time itself, the movement of a wheel – these are ideas straight from the text. On the other hand, the set had a “constructivist” look when a more expressionistic approach design might have been more effective. The period costumes would have fit this look perfectly. Designed by Tony winner Catherine Zuber, they might have sprung from a film by W. B. Pabst.

Leaving the singers to last is an odd thing for an opera review, I suppose, but opera has become the leading form of theater of our time. The stage directors get more and more attention and glory. That’s just the way it is! And Berg’s Wozzeck is no ordinary opera.

German bass Franz Hawlata tackled the leading role nobly, especially considering the fact that he, like everyone else, was asked to sing in English. When one could understand what he said at all (utilizing the helpful Digitext SuperTitles projected above the proscenium), Hawlata sang and spoke with a German accent. Perhaps this language shift made him uncomfortable, for fine as he was, Hawlata never got the most of the role vocally. Something was inhibiting him. The ineffectual, bumbling, Wozzeck came across, but not the angry , tragic Wozzeck.

American soprano, Nina Warren, however, made the most of the vocal-cord-devouring role of Marie. It helped that she looked the part. And her clearly focused top notes shattered the rafters. Warren captured much of Marie’s character we do not always see; she presented a perfect package of sass and sin, both free spirited and guilt ridden. Someone suggested to me that she was doing Carmen, not Marie – but if she was Carmen, it seemed to fit.

I missed hearing the German language throughout the whole evening. The vowel changes gave much of the score an unfamiliar quality. I would never claim, however, that the German sounds beautiful – and when Berg brings his Captain on in Act One, the sound of the language adds to the character’s irritating patter. Chris Merritt (hard to believe this guy once sang Rossini!) was fine in this part, its ugliness calmed down by the English. Merritt, of course, was paired in one important scene with Dean Peterson as the Doctor. Peterson was exceptional in the role, capturing just the right degree of cold objectivity, human frailty and clinical goofiness. This Doctor, after all, is the archtype of "the mad scientist."

The rest of the cast was outstanding: Joel Sorenson in a sympathetic rendering of Andres; Susana Poretsky, both nasty and appropriately spooky as Margret; and Jay Hunter Morris, cocksure of himself as the strutting Drum Major, Marie’s sexual downfall. Joseph Frank was terrific as the so-called Idiot, who channels a great prophetic impression of blood on Wozzeck’s body – another passage that sounds so much better in German: “Aber es riecht …Blut!” It’s that “U” sound that gets you. Journeyman’s duty was superbly served by Daniel Hoy (the second Journeyman) and Scott Sikon (second Journeyman). The chorus, as usual, was excellent.

To echo San Diego Opera’s now familiar slogan, this Wozzeck is music well worth seeing. My major complaint really has to do with McAnuff, who, for all his respect for the work, has cooked up one of the more dramatically pallid productions of Wozzeck I have seen in my opera-going experience of over more than 50 years. It’s not that it is not strong and in many ways inventive: it just does not deliver that wallop one expects from this opera (even with all those four-letter words in the English translation). Somehow, there is just a little too much of a distancing effect going on. We need to have our socks knocked off – and that never really happens.


1. San Diego Opera chorus and onstage banda. Photo © Ken Howard.
2. Franz Hawlata as Wozzeck. Photo © Ken Howard.
3. Nina Warren as Marie. Photo © Corey Weaver.

San Diego Opera
San Diego Civic Theatre
Apr 14, 17, 20, 22 (m)

Wozzeck: Franz Hawlata
Drum Major: Jay Hunter Morris
The Captain: Chris Merritt
Marie: Nina Warren
The Doctor: Dean Peterson
Andres: Joel Sorensen
Margret: Susana Poretsky
First Journeyman: Scott Sikon
Second Journeyman: Daniel Hoy

Conductor: Karen Keltner
Director: Des McAnuff
Scenic Designer: Robert Brill
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Howell Binkley

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