Monday, January 20, 2014

Die Erd ist höllenheiß: Darmstadt's two Wozzecks

Getting to hear Alban Berg's Wozzeck is always a treat, and on Saturday I had the opportunity to hear it paired with Manfred Gurlitt's Wozzeck, composed almost at the same time, and, in contrast to Berg's, almost never performed. Both works use the text of Georg Büchner's "dramatic fragment"; the composers selected and ordered the scenes differently, but a great deal of the material is shared by both operas. The bicentennial of Büchner, who lived in Darmstadt, provided the impetus for the city's opera house to present the works together, with a shared director and creative team.  Berg was famously inspired by attending the belated stage premiere of Büchner's play in 1913; Gurlitt was in charge of the stage music for those Münich performances. Berg's opera had its sensational premiere at the Berliner Staatsoper in December of 1925; when Gurlitt's Wozzeck was first performed in Bremen the following April, under the composer's baton, newspaper headlines spoke of it as the "other" or the "second" Wozzeck. Although Gurlitt's opera may stand inevitably in the shadow of Berg's masterpiece, the Darmstadt presentation made a good case for it deserving better than oblivion.

Wozzeck between the Doktor and the Hauptmann
Photo © Staatstheater Darmstadt
Gurlitt's opera was the first on the evening's program. In this opera, there is more emphasis on Wozzeck's illness than society's. (Gurlitt omits Wozzeck's scene with the doctor; we see the Drum Major boast coarsely of his sexual exploits, but he doesn't beat Wozzeck.) The comedic side of the encounter between the Captain and the Doctor is emphasized, as is Wozzeck's purchase of the knife from a pedlar. In Gurlitt's piece, it is two workers who hear the moaning of the waters which close over Wozzeck; the production, though, brings the authorities back to take possession of Wozzeck's body on the dissection table of the mortuary. It was, I thought, one of the most effective touches of John Dew's production; the set, by Dirk Hofacker, used rotating walls well to suggest claustrophobia. In a musical language very different from Berg's, it was interesting to hear Gurlitt's use of instrumental forms and popular music. Matching its literary basis, the opera is unconventional in form, and might sound more experimental next to anything that wasn't Alban Berg. The fugue in the dance hall was, I thought, one of the most effective scenes, employing the chorus, the orchestra, and an on-stage band. There is much more expression of characterization and development in orchestra than in the vocal parts; melodic fragments heard first from the singers often reappear transformed in the pit. The score struck me generally as having expressionist tendencies (and I thought it might pair well with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle.) The brass was used selectively to sinister effect, as was an eerie piano; Gurlitt's orchestration emphasized strings and woodwinds (often pairing flute and oboe; the oboe soloist on Saturday was deserving of special mention.) Ostinato figures in the strings were frequently ominous, and in the opening scene suitably verhetzt. Under the baton of Martin Lukas Meister, the orchestra gave a responsive reading of the score that breathed well. There were a few moments of off tuning, and I wondered if the score might have been given more shape; still, this is material where there's a case to be made for a deliberate refusal to enforce direction on these tragic futilities. The chorus was very fine, providing the eerie interjection "Wir arme Leut!" from offstage at the opening and close of the piece, as well as complicated contributions in the dance hall. Thomas Mehnert sang expressively, and with admirably clear diction, as the Hauptmann. Margaret Rose Koenn, taking over the role of Marie at short notice, handled the difficult vocal intervals well, conveying Marie's malaise physically as well as vocally. It was David Pichlmaier's moving Wozzeck which provided the soul of the piece, and perhaps made the best case for its value. Most of the role hovers uneasily in a small range, employing many minor intervals, conveying Wozzeck's sense of being trapped. Pichlmaier used vocal coloring and text well to express his wretchedness and his increasing desperation.

Wozzeck against the world
 Photo © Staatstheater Darmstadt
Berg's shattering vision of Wozzeck's journey came after the interval. A bar of light reminiscent of a razor blade downstage was the strongest part of the production, which used shifting walls and frequently exposed elements of stage machinery. (The lighting, to me, seemed reminiscent of 80s productions, and not particularly insightful.) Wozzeck and Marie's son was older here than usual--the text said 6; he looked at least 8--which made Marie's behavior seem less loving and more violent. Another and inexplicable alteration to the text was made: the doctor reproaches Wozzeck for coughing on the street, which weakens the logic--and the brutal impact--of the entire scene. Meister led the orchestra in a creditable performance; I was reminded of and confirmed in my love for the piece. I did find myself wishing for sharper detail at times, or greater nuance, but I've been spoiled by the unearthly precision and unusual lyricism of the previous Wozzecks I've heard. Casting of the small but vital roles was solid. As Andreas, Minseok Kim sounded brighter and freer than in the previous work. Thomas Mehnert was excellent as the doctor, giving a vividly characterized performance this vain and malicious man. (His characterization through vocal color was striking; I didn't realize he was doubling until I looked at the program afterwards.) Mehnert's use of text was also impressive, notably in emphasizing the ironically echoed "unsterblich." Peter Kappelmann was very strong as the Hauptmann, with a muscular, bright tenor; he was unafraid to use a wide range of vocal effects in portraying the Hauptmann's absurdities. Tamina Maamar gave a vivid performance of an unusually tough Marie: she may hate the grinding need for money, but she is resolved to survive, and alert for a chance to escape. Maamar has a full, rich-toned soprano (easy to imagine in Strauss) which she used confidently to convey Marie's impatience, her desire, and her resentment. As Wozzeck, Ralf Lukas sang with a fine baritone, solid and supple. Possibly as a result of the direction, his baffled resignation was emphasized without giving the sense of a man pushed to desperate extremes. But perhaps the intent was to show this as no less a tragedy for being that of a man who is lumpish and disposed to violence and jealousy; an unprepossessing Everyman. The staging of his death was appropriately chilling, and the children as voyeuristic chorus made in some ways a more terrifying incarnation of society than any that had come before. I left dry-eyed, and I slept soundly, but it was still an interesting and rewarding evening.

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