Cher Public

Whispers and cries

Concert opera performances usually put the singers in front of the orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic fills the stage with orchestra and puts the singers on raised platforms at either side. The reasoning, perhaps is: We were not at Carnegie Hall to hear superb opera singers bestow their vocalism upon Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; we are there to hear the Wiener Staatsoper’s house band work their magic upon an intricate, spooky, devastating score.  

Or it can be devastating. But on Friday, superb as the playing might be, the constant thwack of the world upon poor Wozzeck’s head, the persecutions that drive him to murder the one person who has ever been the least bit sympathetic (lucky he has only a knife and not an assault rifle, eh? He’d take out the whole town, and who’d want to stop him?), are not well served when the singers are isolated, concertizing, prevented from interacting. This made a formal, elegant concert of what should be a sordid, in-your-face melodrama of the muddiest, most realistic sort. Black tie and formal gowns do not suit this opera.

Now, as it happens, I’m a great fan of concert opera. It is perhaps rude to make comparisons with the glorious St. Louis Symphony performance of Peter Grimes last November, where a space was left beside the orchestra for characters to meet and confront each other, or the New York Philharmonic’s concert Elektra a few years back, where the princess went head-to-head with her mother, her sister, her brother and held us riveted to our seats. A friend tells me that the New York premiere of Wozzeck, given by the Philharmonic with Dmitri Mitropoulos and Eileen Farrell in 1951 is available, and shattering. (He has no idea how the singers then were arranged on the Carnegie stage.) But this particular concert, superbly played and cast as it was, seemed to undercut the drama rather than play to it, to emphasize the opera concert at the expense of the murky story.

Perhaps the unsuccess is that of Franz Welser-Möst, a late substitution for Daniele Gatti, who seemed to have no conveyable vision of the work, no willingness to serve a dramatic point with musical effect. It was a serviceable Wozzeck, thanks to the excellent playing and singing, but it did not drive us to a cathartic point.

Matthias Goerne, better known in these parts for the elegance of his lieder-singing, sang Wozzeck as if his tongue was too big for his mouth, an effective portrayal of dimwittedness and willingness to be told what to do, what to believe, and of his mental abstraction, coming from another world that does not translate well into the quicker language of the rest of mankind. He sang his hallucinations as if he were struggling to make sounds from within a well.

Evelyn Herlitzius is a popular singer of much of the basic Germanic repertory all over Central Europe, and the brilliance of her powerful top notes must make her impressive whenever she’s enacting hysteria. Her softer and lower notes were not so enjoyable, and she invoked no pathos when singing to—or praying beside—her child. Part of the problem was the absence of a child, listening but unspeaking, which enables any actress to have her way with us when the opera is staged, and these phrases echo for me, eternally, in the shards of tone of Hildegard Behrens, who seemed to express the bleakness of her unhappiness with her vocal flaws. Herlitzius sent these phrases off with an imaginary child; she seemed to be singing to nothing. We noticed they didn’t seem to mean much to her.

Herwig Pecoraro sang the Captain with authority but lacked a certain maniacal eccentricity, perhaps because he, too, was shouting at us rather than at Wozzeck. Wolfgang Bankl’s dark bass made him a menacing Doctor, the power of restrained sadism coiling in his throat. Herbert Lippert’s Drum Major was competent. Thomas Ebenstein, a last-minute replacement, sang an excellent, indifferent Andres. In the inn scenes, veteran Franz Gruber distinguished himself, and Peter Jelosits (the Madman), Andreas Hörl and Clemens Unterreiner gave us some idea of how nobly performers of lesser roles maintain Vienna’s top-of-the-line reputation. Monika Bohinec shone briefly during Margaret’s “dance” with Wozzeck.

  • Friends from Vienna write that they found Welser-Most’s Wozzeck “genial,” which seems a most Viennese adjective … if not exactly what one expects in this case.

    • Batty Masetto

      Hans, I don’t get your comment. “Genial” in German means “a thing of genius.” -- Unless you’re a W-M hater, it doesn’t seem an odd adjective to apply if they liked the performance.

      (English “genial” would be something like “gemütlich” in German.)

      • FragendeFrau82

        Thanks for the reminder, Batty. Until a few months ago I regularly made the same mistake, even though I’ve spoken German for years.

  • operaassport

    I agree about the set up. It was awful, especially if you were sitting in the middle front like me. The singers should be arrayed in front of the orchestra on either side of the conductor. No other arrangement works.

    • I missed this Wozzeck and am missing tonight’s Salome due to a virus that is giving me near perpetual vertigo. It sounds like FWMs Wozzeck was nowhere near as successful at making the head swim. Still I’m sorry I missed these performances.

  • Camille

    My sentiments as well, almost down to every single last word.

    Somehow, it all felt like blunt force trauma to me on many levels. Monsieur Camille is busy at the moment selling my ticket for tonite as I have been taken ill, and wild horses will not drive me to Salome to be blungeoned once more.

    I found Mr. Goerne rather sympa, and think he should be playing the part at the upcoming Met production. Vienna Phil is a glorious sounding instrument. It is all gallingly disappointing.

    Very succinctly and accurately put, Mr. Y., at least from our viewpoint, so thank you.

    • bluecabochon

      I’m sorry that you’re ill, Camille -- and on your return to NYC! :(

      I was hoping to recognize you via divine intervention at MASKERADE today at MoMA, but you probably decided to stay home. I had never seen it, and as a fangurl of the late great Anton Walbrook, was compelled to go. It was charming, as was he, and sold out, so I hope that they see that they have a winner there and will schedule another screening. I would love to see it again!

      I am nursing a middle ear infection that is most annoying, but so far I can get around. I hope that you and Superconductor will recover quickly.

      • Camille

        Yes, blue, I missed that, so not even Divine Intervention wiuld have been of assistance.

        Mr. Walbrook (Wohlbrück) was also the Dr. Falke in the mad gay “Oh Rosalinda”, which I did manage to see, despite dozing thriugh a part of it. At that point, I decided to relinquish my SallyMay ticket.

        Too many germs in NYC.

  • Camille

    And as I turned the page to Act III of my ENO Guide last night, there was a full page picture of Hildegard Behrens aa Marie, just to remind me.

  • Thanks for the review. i really wanted to see this but couldn’t. Oh well.

  • Doesn’t the story go that Mitropoulos wouldn’t let them use scored and they were all terrified and Farrell was singing Ds in stead of Bs and stuff? Or am I totally mixing my stories up?

    • la vociaccia

      That is how Mrsjohnclaggart explained the Mitropoulos recording in an old parterre thread

    • “Jacques Monod and I were sitting in the hall, following the score of “Wozzeck” while Dimitri rehearsed. Now, there is a scene in a tavern where Berg uses a cafe band, and in one bar there’s a place where the accordionist plays an E minor triad. Well, whoever this guy was, he was brought in as a freelances and he wasn’t very good, because he kept playing an E majortriad. And Mitropoulos didn’t seem to notice it. I turned to Jacques and said, “Should I tell him?” And Jacques said, “Gee, I don’t know. Maybe you ought to because other people are certainly going to notice.” So I went up to Dimitri at the next break and pointed it out to him in the score, and we was sincerely grateful. He thanked me, and then he went and had a few words with the accordionist. I discovered that this incident was not unique. In fact, that fabulous memory of Dimitri’s [who was conducting without score -- ed.] was accurate mainly with regard to the rhythmic structure of a work -- if a sixteenth note were missing, he would notice it. But he was not that scrupulous about pitch, especially in the kind of contemporary scores he loved to conduct. As great as that “Wozzeck” recording is, there are a lot of flubbed notes in it.”

      Milton Babbitt, cited in William R. Trotter “Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos”, p.314.

      • Regarding the arrangement of performers for Mitropoulos’ concert “Wozzeck”s, Trotter writes: “There was no scenery, but Mitropoulos made room on the stage, between the podium and the orchestra, for his vocalists to move around, to gesture, to express physically the emotions behind their words. The chorus, too, participated; dressed in simple, working-class attire, its members were drilled to rise and declaim, to gesture, to show expressions of anger, rage, or tenderness as the music required.”

      • A look at the score suggests that the passage Babbitt had in mind was Act II, mm. 651 ff (Idiot: “Lustig, lustig…”), where the accordion e minor chords are quite exposed. Other instances in the scene have the accordion harmonies mostly doubled by the guitar -- Mitropoulos surely would have noticed a mistake there….

      • Camille

        Thanks, croche.
        Very interesting and gratifying to hear from Mr. Babbitt once more.

        And double thanks for posting the information on the manner in which they staged the ’51 version of Wozzeck, as well.

    • I have a lot of trouble imagining Eilieen Farrell being able to get through even a whole scene of Wozzeck off book. One reason her opera career was so limited was that memorizing entire scores was such hard work for her, or let’s say so much harder work than she could see her way clear to do. (She sang only five operas at the Met, Alceste, La Gioconda, La forza del destino, Andrea Chenier and Cavalleria rusticana, and so far as I can tell there was only one other staged opera in her repertoire, Trovatore. Her concerts of Wagner and so forth were always on book.

      • Here’s what I’m finding in Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell

        …Memorizing an entire twelve-tone score was murder, and I had to concentrate like blazes to drum the unfamiliar pitches into my ear. Mack Harrell, who was Wozzeck, or Freerick Jagel, who did a terrific job as the Drum Major, would come to the end of a phrase, and I would stand there sweating it, thinking “OK, now my line is next, and it’s three and a half tones above Mack’s last note, and that would be a D…” Still, by the time the first day of rehearsal rolled around, I thought I had my part pretty much under my belt.

        I wasn’t prepared for how well Mitropoulos knew Wozzeck. At that first rehearsal, he showed up without a score; he had committed every note to memory. The guys in the orchestra just sat there with their mouths hanging open as Mitropoulos said “Okay, now subdivide the first three bars…” We finished the rehearsal and a group of us got in a cab to go to lunch. Mitropolous turned to me and said, “So, what’s the matter with you?”

        “What do you mean, what’s the matter with me?” I asked. “This music is hard.”

        “It’s not hard,” he snapped. “I counted on you, out of everyone here, to know your part perfectly.”

        “Well,” I said, “gee…I almost do.”

        For Mitropoulos, “almost wasn’t good enough. He told me about his early years in Greece, when his family was too poor to buy scores. Instead, he had to go to the library and check them out. He pored over them for hours, and since he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to buy them, he made sure he memorized them.

        Maybe just a good story, of course.

        • Camille

          Thanks. I wondered what she had to say about it. Is that the end of it though? Doesn’t she say how the performance went?

        • Well worth reading. Thanks, Maury.

      • Krunoslav

        Cieca, Farrell also sang staged performances of MEDEA (1958, Richard Lewis, Giuseppe Modesti, Sylvia Stahlman, Claramae Turner: Jean Fournet) and ARIADNE AUF NAXOS (1959, Rita Streich, Richard Lewis, Sena Jurinac, Theodor Uppman, Geraint Evans, Pierrette Alarie as Najade!!) at San Francisco Opera.

        I heard Evans and Lewis together there in 1981 in WOZZECK with Janis Martin (fabulous as Marie) : Lewis was *really* impressive, given his age. Evans basically hammed and shouted. In his US debut, Roderick Kennedy was brought over--need one say whence?--for the Doctor; he made no impact whatsoever.

    • Much the same, by the way, is also true of Boulez’s recording of Wozzeck with Walter Berry, etc. Captain Darmstadt allows the singers a surprising amount of … lattitude … in their choice of pitches. The Mitropoulos recording was made live. Boulez had no such excuse.

  • Nota bene: the New York premiere of “Wozzeck” occurred in 1931. Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company.

  • Liz.S

    (Franz Welser-Möst) “seemed to have no conveyable vision of the work, no willingness to serve a dramatic point with musical effect.”
    I strongly disagree. Welser-Möst carefully built up the tension that exploded first at the murder scene and drawing THAT long dramatic arch cannot be achieved by someone who doesn’t have a vision at all -- IMHO.
    He is not red blooded, perhaps appears to be too controlled and too elegant but a guy who has “no willingness to serve a dramatic point with musical effect?” -- no that’s not him.

    Also dramatic effectiveness aside, this stage setting is not really new to us -- Peter Grimes was semi-staged and of course semi-staged version is more dramatic than concert version.

    • la vociaccia

      An important distinction, though, is that Grimes really was semi-staged. The entire left side of the stage was cleared off and everyone had plenty of room to move around. Also, the whole cast was off-book. For the Wozzeck last night I was slightly higher up, and on the right side of the auditorium, so I had a full view of the main singers. Now, I wasn’t at all bored last night, but I didn’t really leave emotionally drained as I hope to from a performance of Wozzeck. I practically needed to be hauled out on a stretcher after Grimes this past November- THAT was an effective performance

      • la vociaccia

        Should clarify, it wasn’t the ENTIRE left side but there was a lot of space.

    • RobNYNY

      I never know what to make of reviews like this in general. Should the conductor have pointed at the Captain and said, “I need more maniacal eccentricity!”?

  • Camille

    A BühnentierKorral is what that structure looked to me.

    Ugly and wrong. The laco of das Kind rendered Marie’s lines utterly meaningless

    The Elektra with NY Phil a few years back had a huge orchestra and somehow they managed to make it work.

    Very peeved about it all.

  • Uh, so … if you guys can’t get enough of Wozzeck, right now opening night Wozzeck (this Thursday) has discounted seats in all sections. You can get rear orchestra seats for $80. And prime orchestra seats that are usually $250 are now $150.

    • Camille

      They should be PAYING us those amounts to attend, ivylina!

    • Jamie01

      It’s only like 90 minutes long, so sure I could use a little more Wozzeck. Although Debbie Voigt and Thomas Hampsen doesn’t seem too promising.

      I was way up in the nosebleeds house left on Friday, so I couldn’t see any of the soloists(except for the minor characters who were on a riser stage left) until they came out for their bows.

      • I didn’t attend the Wozzeck because of the prices. :( They were charging $42.50 for obstructed view nosebleed balcony seats. That’s ridiculous price gouging, even if it is the VPO.

        • Camille

          Ivy, for the future — if you do have an old student ID, that you even faintly still resemble, or if you have a friend with a current student ID--check the student rush ticket offers on the Carnegie website. They change from day to day, and on the Wozzeck date, the student rush only went up that day. This is the $10 ticket and you can buy 2 per each ID>

          Now, ordinarily, there is the same day rush ticket line which usually starts queuing up at anywhere from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m., on that date. Box office opens at 11:00, so wear warm shoes and there is, of course, a Starbucks nearby. If you are among the first 20 or so people on line, you are guaranteed a ticket — that, assuming that everyone of those persons buys two tickets. These are also $10.00 per person, and two tickets per person.

          Carnegie Hall holds back a minimum of 40 balcony seats for even the most sold out events, but usually there can be up to as many as 100.

          Hope that this may be of help to you. You should not miss any of these things, if you are able to make that damn line.

          There is also the case where I have shown up about 10:00 a.m. and gotten tickets for less popular and/or high profile events.

          • Thanks Camille. Sometimes I’ve gotten away with an ancient student ID. But it was just so cold that day and I didn’t feel like doing the rush line and I also didn’t want to go there to be turned down for the student ticket. Eh. There’s more chances to see Wozzeck and I don’t like concert versions of an opera that dependent on dramaturgy. (Tries to make myself feel better.)

            • Jamie01

              I walked in about twenty minutes before curtain and got $10 rush tickets. No waiting on line, no freezing. (just to make you feel better)

  • mifune

    Very elementary question — both this review and the Times describe the VPO as the pit band of the Wiener Staatsoper. I had thought that the VPO was a separate but related institution: the members of the VPO are hired from the orchestra of the Staatsoper, but if you go to the Staatsoper on a regular night it’s not the VPO you’re hearing. But I guess I’m wrong? How does it really work? Does the VPO have roughly the same relation to the Wiener Staatsoper as the MET Orchestra does to the Met Opera?

    • messa di voce

      I’ve also always been confused about what the exact relationship is. I know for sure that what you may hear at the Staatsoper for a routine, under-rehearsed revival sure ain’t the VPO.

      • Liz.S

        The way I understand it is -- Staatsoper Orchester has a larger pool of musicians, only selected members among them are admitted to the Philharmoniker.

  • Camille

    Right, I am afraid. The Carnegie website was offering those ten dollar tickets just a couple hours before the show, so it really pays to hover if you really want to hear something. We expected this would have been sold out and bought tickets more than a month back, so, a slight chagrin….

    Yes, Ivy, the dramaturgy of this work is specially important, at least to me, and maybe because I first experienced it as a play, long before seeing and hearing it as an Oper.

    Does anyone recall the marvelous staging Ira Siff did for the OONY Adriana Lecouvreur with Millo, et al.? I’m sure you all do as you all must have been there. It was a great staging solution for an opera at Carnegie Hall and wish it would be emulated for others as well.

  • pasavant

    What is meant by the expression ” house band?”

  • I can’t believe La Cieca hasn’t posted this yet, but if you missed Goerne’s Wozzeck last week, you have another chance to see him. Tonight. At the Met.

    I quote:

    Matthias Goerne is stepping into the title role in tonight’s opening night performance of Berg’s Wozzeck, replacing Thomas Hampson, who has withdrawn due to illness.

    The Met approached Goerne, who was in New York performing at Carnegie Hall, yesterday evening when the company’s artistic staff learned of Hampson’s withdrawal. Goerne sang a solo recital at Carnegie Hall and then considered the offer overnight before agreeing. He is currently en route to the Met where he will rehearse with Maestro James Levine and the company’s staff directors. In a serendipitous twist, Goerne attended Monday morning’s dress rehearsal of Wozzeck as a guest, allowing him a chance to see the production in advance.

    This performance will be Goerne’s first time singing Wozzeck at the Met. He has given acclaimed performances in the role with other companies, including the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera, with whom he sang the role last Friday evening in a concert staging at Carnegie Hall. The German baritone made his Met debut in 1998 as Papageno in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and reprised the role with the company in 2005. This season, he sings numerous roles at the Vienna State Opera, including the title role in a staged production of Wozzeck later this month, Kurwenal in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal.

    Wozzeck, conducted by Met Music Director James Levine, also stars Deborah Voigt as Marie, Simon O’Neill as the Drum Major, Peter Hoare as the Captain, and Clive Bayley in his Met debut as the Doctor.

    • la vociaccia

      Lolwut? Seriously? Wow……

      • SERIOUSLY. Classy cover, eh?

        I gave at least two minutes thought to figuring out whether I could make an 8 p.m. NYC curtain from the Bay Area, too. If I’d had any sense I would have gone last week and seen the VPO Wozzeck.