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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.