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Esa-Pekka Salonen Leads Masterful "Wozzeck" at Avery Fisher Hall

by Michael Cirigliano II

Wozzeck, Philharmonia, Simon Keenlyside, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Avery Fisher Hall

Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor, The New York Times

It’s nice to see that Alban Berg’s infamous 1922 opera, Wozzeck, hasn’t lost much of its shock value over the past 90 years, as evidenced by the handful of people that rose from their seats and fled Avery Fisher Hall during many of the orchestral interludes and inter-act pauses over the course of Monday’s performance. In fact, it was quite indicative of the searing intensity displayed by the artistic crew assembled that those who stayed and those who left were writhing in their seats. The subject matter—a young soldier driven mad by the anxiety of the time, a cheating wife, desperate poverty, and subject to abject humiliation by anyone in a position of power—is not meant to align with your typical night at the opera; the carnage of the evening is far more gruesome than any consumptive Verdi heroine or poor artist given life by Puccini.

Leading the Philharmonia Orchestra, Westminster Symphonic Choir, American Boychoir, and a roster of impeccably cast singers, Esa-Pekka Salonen brought out the modernistic traits of Berg’s score—eschewing the lush romanticism so often the focus of many productions in order to amplify the intense dissonances that are the heart of the work. The London players have certainly built a loyal relationship with Salonen since his appointment as Music Director in 2008, and they played with precision, color, and acute clarity throughout the thorny score.

In the title role, baritone Simon Keenlyside was a Wozzeck full of rage, despair, and nervous tics. Far from the confident and gallant Prospero that has won him critical acclaim in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, Keenlyside imbued his character with a childlike naiveté that never had control of his surroundings: a cuckold to his unfaithful wife, Marie; a lab rat to the maniacal doctor; and slave to his army captain. From his tremulous and clenched hands, to his ill-fitting suit and frumpy hair, Keenlyside convincingly inhabited the role from beginning to end.

Equally pronounced in her performance, Angela Denoke was a flirtatious and self-involved Marie, one that only fleetingly felt pangs of guilt when taking money from her husband, knowing full well that he was undergoing tortuous medical testing in order to provide for her and their young child. Hubert Francis’ Drum Major was bold and arrogant while seducing Marie and delivering the vilest act of the opera in his brutal attack on Wozzeck during the third act.

What made such a scene even more upsetting (and successful) was, in fact, the concert staging of the performance—without the artifice of set design, costuming, and theatrical lighting to provide a wall of make-believe for the stage’s proceedings, the raw emotion of the opera took center stage. Much like Lars von Trier’s Dogville, the lack of a “fourth” wall made the violence all too relatable and brought everything to a human level: This wasn’t merely a set of antiquated characters subjected to fictional misery, but a depiction of the human struggle with survival—getting through life’s daily burden at whatever costs.

As much as I would love to see this ensemble in a lush, fully staged production, I couldn’t help but think that the audience at Avery Fisher Hall got a far more visceral and satisfying experience than they could have ever expected next door.