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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.

44 comments

  • mifune says:

    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 says:

      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.

  • Camille says:

    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 says:

    What is meant by the expression ” house band?”

  • irontongue says:

    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 says:

      Lolwut? Seriously? Wow……

      • irontongue says:

        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.