Saturday, 3 October 2015

Devastating Wozzeck Fabio Luisi Zurich Opera Leigh Melrose

Zurich Opera brought Alban Berg Wozzeck to the Royal Festival Hall, London . Fabio Luisi conducted Philharmonia Zurich and a very good cast in a concert performance. With all pretence at staging removed (apart from natural good acting)  we could focus on the sheer musical audacity of Berg's writing, and pick up on the processes the music employs to create the drama. Wozzeck describes  a whole community caught up in  insane delusions. Wozzeck is at the vortex,  but his story began long before, and will certainly continue.

Luisi's Wozzeck felt like a tightly twisted knot, building up tensions that reflect the maze-like inner complexities in the score,  What a viscerally physical performance! The orchestra played like athletes, very strong men (and women) pulling the knot tighter with spirited, energetic playing, prickling with suppressed violence. "Eine Apoplexia cerebri" sings the Doctor (Lars Woldt), terrifying the Captain (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhake). Our brains could explode at any time.

In the very first scene, Wozzeck (Leigh Melrose) is shaving the Captain. "Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam". The orchestra zings with the sharpness of a razor.  We know what will happen to Marie. Even more trenchantly, Luisi brings out the details that connect this indoor scene with the wild moor. Wozzeck and Anders (Mauro Peter) are harvesting reeds, another mechanically repetitive process, but Wozzeck sees visions of mushrooms. Luminous string playing, suggesting the surreal unnatural glow. The moon hangs heavily throughout the opera,  aurally present, though only Wozzeck can see it. The Doctor makes Wozzeck eat only beans. The trombones emit bursts of flatulence. The Doctor goes apoplectic when Wozzeck can't contain his natural impulses. "O meine Theorie", Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang with demented glee, spitting out the final word "Unsterblich", so it cut like a knife.  Theories, controls, regulation: the hallmarks of OCD. Luisi showed how the larger scenes with chorus are not "pastoral". The music moved with a kind of mechanical madness. These peasants are dancing like puppets on strings, their minds dulled with alcohol. No wonder the Drum-Major (Brandon Jovanovich) seems, to Marie (Gun-Brit Barkmin), like a vision of finer things. But Luisi makes sure that the music around the Drum Major is pointedly bombastic. Luisi particularly excelled in the scenes where the chorus, soloists and orchestra were all involved, all playing on slightly different levels - subtly but unnervingly discordant.

Leigh Melrose sang Wozzeck with a day's notice. Like Ablinger-Sperrhacke, and Woldt, Melrose is one of the great character singers in their voice types. This makes a huge difference in a role like Wozzeck, whose lines are muted, as cowed and repressed as the character himself. Wozzeck isn't even an anti-hero, he's been so brutalized that he's almost more animal than man. Singing Wozzeck isn't like singing any other role.  Christian Gerhaher was originally scheduled to sing the part. No-one will ever forget Gerhaher's first Wolfram, which glowed with divine purity. Significantly, Elisabeth chose Tannhäuser. Was Wagner making the point that there's much more to art than beauty? "Wir arme Leute"  sang Melrose, in one of Wozzeck's few moments of articulation,  "Wenn ich ein Herr wär', und hätt' einen Hut und eine Uhr und ein Augenglas und könnt' vornehm reden, ich wollte schon tugendhaft sein!"  But poor folks like Wozzeck pee on walls.  Melrose has an instinctive understanding of Wozzeck's almost feral inability to conform to social niceties. His grittiness created a Wozzeck that worked well with Luisi's approach to the opera.

In the final scenes, Berg creates invisible curtains of sound that conceal what we might see on stage, but speak powerfully in abstract sound. Wozzeck is silenced, but  the orchestra screams in outrage. The Doctor and the Captain recognize the sounds as groans, but do not respond. The children tell Marie's son that her body is lying in the open. He can't respond, for his is a silent part. What little we do glimpse of him  lies in what Wozzeck sings about him, and the way the child cowers to escape trauma.  Consider that, when the children go back to their games. "Hopp hopp, Hopp hopp", as if nothing has happened. If you can leave a good Wozzeck unmoved, you become sucked into the cycle of cruelty, like the Doctor, Captain and the cruel children.

This review will appear in Opera Today. Performance photo : Belinda Lawley

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