Friday, 9 October 2009

Wozzeck Salonen/Philharmonia

'Like a blade running through the world' is how the contemptible Captain describes Wozzeck. This phrase that pops out of the middle of Berg's opera really stuck with me: it occurs to me that this particular blade is very sharp, making a clean incision - no sooner has the violent cut been made than it closes again, rather like the waters quietly closing over his head as he drowns in the penultimate scene.


That's the pathos at the centre of Wozzeck, bullied into hallucinatory possession under the burden of which he slays his woman and then, by accident, himself. Simon Keenlyside's immersive performance had this absolutely nailed down. His Wozzeck has little grace, void of self-esteem in his gait and posture. He's not distracted, he just lacks any self-regard. Like the music though Keenlyside can move (and sing) with great explosive energy. One imagines it must have been terrifying for Katarina Dalayman to rehearse Marie's murder over and over, given how shockingly real it seems.

Keenlyside's Wozzeck is, like the music, a curious, self-effacing hybrid of protagonist and dramatic subordinate so one ocassionally lapses into 'noticing' the more conventional dramatic characterisations. Dalayman sings a powerful, sympathetic Marie but the stand-out role of the evening was the grotesque, snide Captain of Peter Hoare, a comic, loathsome and pathetic figure whose every word and gesture Hoare was determined should be heard right at the back of the hall. David Soar's fine cameo as the Branntewein-soaked First Apprentice was of this stable. I also have to mention the final scene's appearance of a select group of children. Coming on in all black like a premonitory column of corpses they were outstanding, even more so for their brevity of appearance.

No less a character, especially in this concert staging was the Philharmonia Orchestra, expanded to meet the scoring and firing into the red to meet its virtuosic demands. The Philharmonia's strength, control, found perfume in the dust kicked up by the periodic and fierce expressionist raging - their celebrated string ensemble was particularly effective (and the section principals were particularly fine, with James Clark leading). I felt that Esa-Pekka Salonen's handling was a curious mix, with a typically tight grip on the score but, strangely, only so that he could pursue its Romanticism. We heard Mahler flooding out between the music-as-woodcut smears of sound but I didn't always hear the real modernism in the score. This wasn't the most lean, diaphanous of readings.

An interesting addition to this production was that of a video installation. Relayed on a huge screen behind the orchestra, Jean-Baptiste Barrière's visual production 'projects the opera in vivid colours, inspired by expressionist paintings' (in Barrière's own words). The expressionism he refers to here is more to do with the swirling distortions of Munch or Schoenberg perhaps rather than, as he says, the quasi-satirical angularities of Grosz or Beckmann. Consequently the kaleidoscopic palette of the video swirled throughout the opera, incorporating real-time images of the performers in a datamoshed, Schnitzler-like Traum. Most of the time this worked as a visual adjunct (although, screen-wise, I was more interested in the surtitles) although the clip-arty shattering of an image of the boy at the moment of Marie's murder was a strangely crass anomaly.

A fine Wozzeck then, perhaps crowning the piece's incipient past rather than pitching it as the overseer of 20th century modernism but then, as such, it was a fitting conclusion to the Philharmonia's City Of Dreams season.

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