Viennese Unleash Twin Thrillers In ‘Wozzeck, Salome’

Gun-Brit Barkmin, in black, as Salome, and Carlos Osuna as Narraboth w Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall 03-01-2014. Vienna: City of Dreams festival. (Chris Lee)
Strauss’ ‘Salome,’ in concert, featured the mesmerizing soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin and Carlos Osuna as Narraboth.
Carnegie Hall’s Vienna:City of Dreams festival also included ‘Wozzek’ with the same orchestral forces. (Photo by Chris Lee)
By Patrick J. Smith

NEW YORK – The Vienna: City of Dreams festival at Carnegie Hall, which is presenting all sorts of events through March, included two performances by the “operatic” division of the Vienna Philharmonic (as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra): concert versions of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (Feb. 28) and Richard Strauss’ Salome (March 1). Both works – short, direct, powerful – benefited from the concert format and, given the extensive abilities of the orchestra, produced evenings of impressive musical stature, a highlight of the New York operatic season.

Evelyn Herlitzius's Marie was a blazing hellcat, Matthias Goerne's Wozzeck a volcano under loose wraps at Carnegie Hall Vienna City of Dreams festival. (Steve J. Sherman)
Herlitzius’s Marie was a hellcat, Goerne’s Wozzeck volcanic. (Steve J. Sherman)

This is certainly the time, in New York anyway, for Berg’s masterpiece. Last year brought a concert performance of the opera in Lincoln Center conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Simon Keenlyside as Wozzeck), and this month, James Levine will revive the Met’s production for five performances, with Thomas Hampson. The concert performance at Carnegie Hall was under the direction of Vienna State Opera general music director Franz Welser-Möst.

The stage was filled to capacity with the orchestra, the State Opera Chorus, and members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus for the poignant final scene. Risers were used on both sides of the stage for the soloists, with the major singers on the viewer’s left and the secondary singers to the right. This arrangement allowed the voices to be clearly heard over the orchestra, which was handled with great finesse by Welser-Möst, so that the manifold colors of the orchestration were revealed. The orchestra gave a reading of the score that, while not emphasizing the angularity that some conductors bring to it, nonetheless placed the opera squarely in the grand Romantic tradition of its composition, a tradition stretching from Haydn through Richard Strauss. The solo work of various section members – so much a part of Berg’s scoring – was particularly noticeable.

Matthias Goerne, Monika Bohinec in 'Wozzeck.'  (Steven J. Sherman)
Matthias Goerne, Monika Bohinec in ‘Wozzeck.’ (Steve J. Sherman)

The chief element of this concert performance, however, besides the playing of the orchestra, was the conscious two-level structure of the text and music. First of all, it signaled itself in the costuming: most of the male soloists were in white tie and black, and the second female, Monika Bohinec as Margret, was likewise in black. Marie and Wozzeck were set apart: Evelyn Herlitzius’ Marie in dark red with a black shawl and Matthias Goerne’s Wozzeck in black shirt and dark nondescript suit. These were clearly meant to be separate from the rest, almost equivalent to a painting where the foreground is in color and the background a frieze in black-and-white. This was strongly seconded by the performances of the two.

Herlitzius has had an enormously successful career in Europe, and it is easy to see why. She has a forceful, if somewhat strident, voice, and she uses every bit of it, and every bit of her body as well, to project the words she sings – what you see and hear is a sort of aural flame in motion. Her conception of Marie, therefore, is not the usual. Instead of a rather retiring, conflicted woman lost in a world she cannot understand, this Marie is a blazing hellcat, in control of herself and her destiny, which allows for her surrender to the Drum Major to be better understood. The performance Herlitzius gives is an arresting one, and if one questions certain aspects of it — she cannot, given her character, identify much with Mary Magdalene or have much use for the Bible, and one would expect her volatile personality to have put up a rousing fight at her death) — it generates much heat.

The Vienna Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst perform 'Wozzeck.' (Steven J. Sherman)
The Vienna Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst perform ‘Wozzeck.’ (Steve J. Sherman)

Goerne also generates heat, because he sees Wozzeck not as a beaten-down member of the underclass but as a volcano under very loose wraps, and it is obvious from his demeanor and acting that he has crossed the threshold of madness far earlier than other Wozzecks. His climactic scene, as he returns to the pond to search for the knife with which he has killed Marie, is the apex of a great traversal of the character.  Perhaps it remains a minority report –if Berg’s threnody at his death is a lament for all the “poor folk” in the world, it is diminished here as a lament for the mad — yet it is nonetheless stunning.A wonderful artist.

The rest of the cast are on a background level to these two, and that is partly a pity, because at least Herwig Pecoraro, as the Captain, and Wolfgang Bankl, as the Doctor, could have displayed more individuality and quirkiness had they been allowed to become part of a larger ensemble. Of the rest, Herbert Lippert was effective (even if he didn’t look the part, because he was no bull) as the Drum Major, Andreas Hörl showed a powerful bass voice as the First Apprentice, and Thomas Ebenstein substituted with adroitness as Andres.

The customary omission of intervals between the acts was observed, and also the updating of the fourth scene with the Doctor, in which he accuses Wozzeck of urinating in the street, is used. This was in the Büchner original, but Berg changed it for the premiere because he knew that opera houses would not perform it. It became “coughing” – a euphemism well rid of.

‘Magisterial and overwhelming’

Andris Nelsons conducting 'Salome' at Carnegie Hall. (Chris Lee)
Andris Nelsons conducting ‘Salome’ at Carnegie Hall. (Chris Lee)

The musicologist Joseph Kerman is perhaps most notoriously famous for the line in his book Opera as Drama, which termed Puccini’s Tosca as “a shabby little shocker.” I have always felt that the epithet was misplaced: if any opera deserved the title it was rather Richard Strauss’ Salome, whose combination of overripe Oscar Wilde prosody and overripe end-of-century music-making added up to a definitely sordid witch’s brew.

The justification for the opera – if justification for so accomplished a work is necessary – lies in its performance, for, thanks to Wilde and Strauss, this fleshing-out of the Biblical tale of Salome works magic, and works particular magic when all concerned perform to maximum effect. This is what occurred when the Vienna Philharmonic presented the opera in concert form. What may have been shabby and a shocker was instead magisterial and overwhelming.

The stage set-up for the evening was that of the night before (Wozzeck), with risers on both sides of the stage on which the soloists sat, so that their voices could project over the full orchestra. But here there was a greater effort at stage action, at least of a limited kind, so that, besides the gestures of Salome, there was interaction with her and Herod and, on the other riser, the quarrels of the Jews were highlighted. 

Gerhard A. Siegel as Herod and Jane Henschel as Herodias. (Chris Lee)
Gerhard A. Siegel as Herod, Jane Henschel as Herodias. (Chris Lee)

And here we come to the orchestra, which is so integral a part of this opera. Yes, the Vienna Philharmonic has this music in its fingers, and yes, it can make a beautiful noise, but under the dynamic, lithe, and almost acrobatic conducting of Andris Nelsons (I wonder what staid Boston will make of him as its music director!), the pit band (what a pit band!) was pushed to its effulgent limits, so that the manifold colors of the orchestration shone like an array of jewels. Although he marched the story to its grisly conclusion, Nelsons, to his credit, never hurried it or indulged in its excesses, allowing the singers space to express themselves.

And what singers! Beginning with a fine-voiced tenor, Carlos Osuna, as Narraboth, there was not a weak link in the cast. Tomasz Konieczny, replacing an indisposed Falk Struckmann, displayed a rock-solid temperament and a splendid voice perfect for Jokanaan, while Jane Henschel made the most of her short part as Herodias. Gerhard A. Siegel, as Herod, gave one of the premiere performances of the evening, managing to balance his thoroughly slimy nature with his stature as Tetrarch. Often those portraying Herod let the former override the latter, in order to appeal to an audience, but it must be made evident that, despite his weaknesses, Herod is the ruler; Siegel never forgot it.

And then we come top to the Salome, Gun-Brit Barkmin. Oh, my, my. Dressed in a black, robe-like garment with long, flowing sleeves and wearing a black cap set in jewels, this soprano set about mesmerizing everyone, displaying a voice of size, of expressive power, even throughout a wide range and (until the very end) in superior shape. How, I cannot imagine, since she gave every ounce of herself in performance. Every word she sang told – her insistence on getting the head of Jokanaan from Herod was furious, steel-hard, and implacable. She is certainly one of the finest exemplars of that demanding role, and it was a privilege to hear and see her.

I shall not soon forget a passage in this memorable event where, on the right riser (from my perspective), Jokanaan thundered his denunciations of Herodias for her “incestuous” marriage to Herod, her half-uncle, while in the center Nelsons, like some gigantic spider-magician, wove his spell over the orchestra through continuous gestural exercises, while on the left Salome, the black sleeves of her costume billowing out, emoted like some avatar of a Theda Bara silent movie while singing like a banshee about kissing Jokaanan on the mouth.

It was indeed that kind of an evening.

Note: If you’re in or near Boston, you may hear Salome with some of the same cast and the BSO tomorrow night (March 6) led by Nelsons. For details, click here.

Mr. Smith is a past Editor of Opera News and the author of The Tenth Muse, a Historical Study of the Opera Libretto.