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The Trials of the First Opera Anti-hero in a Fine Production

Santa Fe
Santa Fe Opera House
07/30/2011 -  & August 3*, 12, 17, 2011
Alban Berg: Wozzeck, opus 7
Robert Brubaker (The Captain), Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck), Jason Slayden (Andres), Nicola Bella Carbone (Marie), Patricia Risley (Margaret), Eric Owens (The Doctor), Stuart Skelton (The Drum Major), Randall Bills (The Fool), Zachariah Baca (Marie’s Child)
The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, David Robertson (Conductor) Daniel Slater (Director), Robert Innes Hopkins (Scenic and Costume Designer), Rick Fisher (Lighting Designer), John Carrafa (Choreographer)

R. P. Fink (© Ken Howard/Courtesy of SFO)

Before starting his tour of duty in World War I, Alban Berg saw a production of Georg Büchner’s Wozzeck. He went home, picked up a pen and started writing what has become one of the most daring and moving operas of the 20th century. When it was first produced in 1925, Wozzeck had already caused a stir. Every new production excites and the Santa Fe’s revival of their own production from a decade ago is no exception.

Details of Berg’s composition are well-known. He reduced the play’s film-like succession of scenes from 23 to 15 and divided them into three five part acts. Berg did not tamper much with Büchner, whose brilliant plays written before his death at 23 still stagger the imagination. Recent productions of Büchner’s Danton’s Death in London and New York suggest the play to contemporary composers and directors.

What must have arrested Berg still arrests after almost two hundred years. Wozzeck is the first modern anti-hero, a common man beleaguered by the world in which he lives. The lower classes, most often the subjects of film, were new to theatrical presentation when Buchner wrote. Before that tragic suffering was a privilege of Kings and Gods.

Wozzeck is presented in montages which fade and wipe one into the other. We are brought close up and then distanced like a camera lens. In the Santa Fe production, Robert Innes Hopkins captures effects impressionists would later depict in their art and on film. The white-faced ghosts and skeletons of Belgian expressionist James Ensor appear on stage. The arguably most brilliant touch in a brilliant staging is the collapse of the set itself as Wozzeck goes mad: walls upended and tilted, floors dislodged just as Wozzeck’s mind is.

Berg did not use Wagnerian leitmotifs, but rather suggested repeated themes throughout. Words were idea motifs, accompanied by musical themes that differed sometimes slightly, often radically. At Santa Fe these repeated phrases sung in many different forms are engaging and help tie a dense piece even tighter.

The red moon leitmotif that accompanies the murder of Marie and the drowning of Wozzeck was remarkable. The moon sat large and fat and very red in front of the valley that provides the unedited backdrop for the stage. Nature plays a role in Wozzeck as it does in Janácek. Berg almost feinted when he heard nature, which threatened to tear him apart and submerge him. The toad ribets darting around water sounds as Wozzeck drowns get a naturally-occurring boost from the crickets chirping on the Santa Fe Opera grounds.

Richard Paul Fink, who earlier this year offered a stunning Alberich, and performed what must have been a difficult role as Kissinger, among other things assaulted by Pat Nixon, is a masterful Wozzeck. Not only does he capture the vocal lines which weave from guttural utterances to lovely melodies, but he also disintegrates before us on stage, a collapse into madness both Buchner and Berg compose.

Fink performed this taxing role with less fierceness than Alan Held did at the Metropolitan Opera in the spring, but with greater character range and step by step sensitivity. His motion, based on tiny steps, recalled a theme first introduced in Scene I, Einer nach dem Andem-it is good to take our time. Wozzeck starts out frenzied and gets worse. Langsam, slowly, the first word of the opera, turns into schnell, a tornado of speed at the end.

All the performers showed us musical and dramatic palindromes. Director Daniel Slater drew out melody and rhythm ranging from a pitchless whisper to broad speech melodies that determined the way of speak-singing. Diction was notably fine throughout the evening.

Eric Owens is bravely taking on a wide range of roles. It's wonderful to see a performer of his caliber perform in a year Nekromanzer in Ligetti's The Grand Macabre, a starring turn as Alberich at the Metropolitan Opera, Hercules in Chicago, General Groves in the HD of Dr. Atomic and several oratorios. In the cameo role of a pre-Mengele doctor using human guinea pigs, Wozzeck in this case, Owens sings with clarion tones. He rhythmically declaims even while riding a bicycle.

David Robertson, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, is right up there with Fabio Luisi and James Levine as an interpreter of Berg. It was interesting to hear him follow Berg's own performance directions in keeping the overall effect of the piece piano. Cacophony, the still disconcerting impact of atonal music, no matter how artfully it has been composed, disturb less than they reveal under Robertson’s baton.

Why both Berg and Buchner seem as fresh today as they have for two hundred years is not an easily answered question. One reason surely is a successful production like Santa Fe’s. Both music and story are emotionally present. That Wozzeck still penetrates and drains is a tribute to the composer, the architect of the underlying story and the Santa Fe Opera.

The Santa Fe Opera

Susan Hall



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