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Berg, Wozzeck: (Semi-Staged Performance) Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Voices, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.10.2009 (GDn)

Simon Keenlyside Wozzeck

Katarina Dalayman Marie

Hubert Francis The Drum Major

Robert Murray Andres

Peter Hoare The Captain

Hans-Peter Scheidegger The Doctor

Anna Burford Margret

David Soar First Apprentice

Leigh Melrose Second Apprentice

Ben Johnson The Idiot

Jean-Baptiste Barrière General conception and video direction  

How do Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia achieve such superhuman levels of searing intensity? And more to the point, how do they sustain it, without significant interruption, for the duration of an entire concert? I remember thinking the same after hearing one of the Turangalîla performances of his inaugural season, but this evening’s Wozzeck upped the stakes again – a truly exhilarating, if emotionally draining, experience.

Part of the answer is help from their friends. A near-perfect line-up of soloists, a committed and well-rehearsed choir (the Philharmonia Voices) and an innovative semi-staging from director Jean-Baptiste Barrière all contributed. Credit also of course to Alban Berg, whose acute dramatic sensibility ensured that the concert hall setting was no compromise to the work’s operatic intensity.

Salonen’s feeling for the narrative pace and emotional contour of Berg’s work is unparalleled. Pregnant, if brief, pauses are one of the score’s primary dramatic devices, and Salonen’s precisely judged timing of each speaks of a deep empathy with Berg’s musical language, an empathy that is no less crucial for the precise notation with which the composer articulates his requirements. Hearing the orchestration of this opera played by a stage- rather than pit-based ensemble was a revelation too. The voices of the soloists were occasionally overpowered by the gargantuan orchestral force, but it was a sacrifice worth making. In fact, Salonen did Berg a service by not restraining the orchestra for the sake of the singers: the piece has a curious hybrid status as an opera structured around instrumental forms. The second act, for example, is described in the score as a ‘Symphony in Five Movements’. This is the beauty of a concert performance, its ability to redress the balance, or at least to demonstrate the layer upon layer of orchestral detail that is invariably subsumed in the opera house.

The semi-staging amounted to the action taking place at the front of the stage with rudimentary costumes and props, and a large (very large) screen behind the orchestra showing a video instillation made up of computer generated imagery and film of the singers, shot and manipulated in real time. The broad brush strokes of oil paint form the unifying aesthetic of the video montage. The subtlety of the video came from the fact that it was not simply trying to represent the hero’s descent into insanity. Instead it evoked the continuous claustrophobia of his environment, in which every character was both a perpetrator and a victim.

The cast coped admirably with the considerable demands of the score. The wide tessitura was an occasional problem (the high register taxing almost all the men and the low register the women) but there were otherwise few technical problems. Katarina Dalayman played Marie compassionately, as misguided rather than malicious. Hans-Peter Scheidegger as the Doctor and Peter Hoare as the Captain were appropriately sinister apart, but when appearing together excelled as a deeply menacing double act.

But for all the fine singing and acting from the rest of the cast, the star of the show was undoubtedly Simon Keenlyside in the title role. His previous experience of Wozzeck on stage was invaluable here, and it is a role that fits him like a glove. The complex interplay in the character of mature self-determination and childlike vulnerability is expressed in his every line and gesture. His vocal technique is more than a match for any of Berg’s challenges, and the empathy he generates for the hero through his sheer artistry is sufficient to keep this or any production of the work on course.

The concert formed the concluding part of the Philharmonia’s ‘City of Dreams’ festival, a celebration of Viennese music and culture from the early 20th century. And what a spectacular conclusion! The social critique that underpins Wozzeck has little about it that could be considered celebratory, but the artistic means by which the message is put across are unparalleled. If by programming Wozzeck as the festival’s finale, Salonen and his team mean to characterise Vienna between the wars as a city of the high artistic achievement but low moral substance, then their point is well made. But this evening’s performance was no mere history lesson, it was a musical revelation, a powerful, lucid, engaging and exhilarating interpretation of Berg’s towering, twisted masterpiece.

Gavin Dixon

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