Bringing Raw Conviction To The Bleak World Of ‘Wozzeck’ In A Concert

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Danish baritone Bo Skovhus sang the title role in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert version of Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’ at Carnegie Hall on March 15. (Photos by Steven J. Sherman)

NEW YORK — Andris Nelsons, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is apparently compiling a legacy of operas he conducts in concert. He has done the job on La bohème, Die Walküre, and a number of others, and they came out well. After two Boston performances the previous week, Wozzeck, the three-act opera by Alban Berg, was presented in Carnegie Hall on March 15 with English titles and no intermission. That came out well, too.

Composers don’t dare write like this anymore. Dissonance, along with disgusting plot, characters, and language like “piss” and “soused,” suggest more of today’s theater. Inspired by an early 19th-century play called Woyzeck in a first-edition misspelling, Berg began composing it at the start of World War I. He stopped, but continued in its aftermath, making this opera, like his luscious Seven Early Songs, about a century old.   

Wozzeck is still insider music: For every person who rhapsodizes about it, there’s someone who won’t buy a ticket. Its Second Viennese School earmarks — atonality, loudness, sprechstimme — shrank its appeal in Germany. A couple of its European premieres had an inflammatory reception, on the order of The Rite of Spring. It practically screams “entartete” (degenerate). According to Wikipedia: “Soon after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, contemporary music concerts, as well as Modernist and Expressionist scenic design and staging of operas, were canceled, (as well as) the music of Alban Berg, Hanns Eisler, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, Kurt Weill, and other formerly prominent composers…” 

In its military setting, the hapless, mentally unbalanced Wozzeck, soldier and go-fer, is everything from picked on to mercilessly bullied. In the title role, Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, who in 1988 moved away from standard repertory to focus on such off-road works as Krenek’s Karl V and Shostakovich’s The Nose, showed able familiarity with the role of the poor, undisciplined weirdo. Frozen in a slightly bent posture, arms cocked in front of him, he almost invited people around the barracks to victimize him.

Soprano Christine Goerke, boy soprano Linus Schafer Goulthorpe, conductor Andris Nelsons, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing ‘Wozzeck.’

The huge orchestra with spinoff groups — bar combos, raw barbershop sextet, or accompaniment to children — does not take a back seat but occupies the limelight with Wagnerian brass and percussion. (The BSO is still looking for a new concertmaster; associate concertmaster Alexander Velinzon took that seat for this performance.)

Though the score has a few languid orchestral passages, traditional beauty is not in the singers’ parts, except for Marie’s lullaby to her and Wozzeck’s child, drawn from folk roots. Berg laid out the opera as an orchestral piece, describing scenes in musical terms, like “invention” and “triple fugue.” The overall chaotic effect is carefully planned to reflect the chaos in Wozzeck’s mind, and of society, with its discordance in the way these or those people are treated.  

Singers, standing near the front of the stage, were not drowned out, but as in Wagner, the orchestra is a — if not the — major player. It would seem that Wagner took cues from Berg, if we didn’t know it was the other way around.

It was a pleasure to hear singing of such power and assurance. Each role was a treat. Soprano Christine Goerke, as Marie, the only singer watching the score, is a good actress anyway — her Metropolitan Opera credits and enormous reputation are not for nothing. Although her tone was free, she sang with total nuanced control. Her affection for the child — guiding him to a chair, standing behind him with a comforting hand on his shoulder — couldn’t have looked more natural.

The singing, and the way the performers put out the tone in romantic high passages and growling low ones, was redolent of Wagner. When Andres the soldier (Mauro Peter) sings “this place is cursed,” sprechstimme is skillfully blended in, and soon the orchestra, between nasty metallic bits, plays a grim descending scale like the curse motif in The Ring.

Tenor Toby Spence as the Captain and bass Franz Hawlata as the Doctor with conductor Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

German bass Franz Hawlata, the doctor, finds Wozzeck “an interesting case,” suggesting the medical experiments on prisoners in World War II — which this opera preceded. Hawlata knows just how to follow a low arresting laugh with a tiny chuckle.

At the end, the doctor and the Captain (English tenor Toby Spence, solid in the role of the doctor’s giggly comrade) sneaked across the hall in front of the stage, representing their inspection of the site of Marie’s murder and Wozzeck’s drowning, and then ran up the auditorium aisle. A group of children sang as they strolled off to ogle the body of Marie. The few accompanying instruments were led by Blaise Déjardin, doing well as the orchestra’s new principal cello, with newfound seriousness.

Robert Kirzinger’s intelligent notes were highlighted by his useful synopsis. Berg dedicated his opera to Alma Mahler. She must have been his muse, too.