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2009-10-08, London Royal Festival Hall, Wozzeck





It was a magnificent performance of one of opera’s greatest anti-heroes.” The Telegraph

It’s a role that suits Keenlyside’s talents down to the ground.” What’s on Stage

Simon Keenlyside delivered a stirring performance in the title role.” Music OMH

It is one of the finest assumptions he has ever given us…” Opera Britannia

Composer : Alban Berg
Librettist : The composer after the drama Woyzeck by Georg Büchner
Venue and Dates : Royal Festival Hall, London
Semi-staged performance
8 October 2009
Conductor : Esa-Pekka Salonen
Performers :

Wozzeck : Simon Keenlyside
Drum Major : Hubert Francis
Andres :  Robert Murray
Captain : Peter Hoare
Doctor : Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Marie : Katarina Dalayman
Margret : Anna Burford
First Apprentice : David Soar
Second Apprentice : Leigh Melrose
The idiot :  Ben Johnson
Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra

Notes : This performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 ‘Performance on 3’ on Thursday, 15 October 2009, 7.00pm

Below: Julian Johnson visits the Royal Festival Hall to find out more about the Philharmonia Orchestra’s production of Berg’s Wozzeck. Julian goes behind the scenes to talk to the people involved in bringing the production to life.


Simon Thomas, What’s on Stage, 9 October 2009


Rating: Four stars

What a gorgeous, lush score Berg wrote for his ingenious adaptation of Büchner’s fragmentary, pre-expressionist masterpiece. That may not seem the most obvious description of Wozzeck but in this semi-staging, ending the nine month-long Vienna: City of Dreams series, The Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen mined the gooey centre beneath the shell. The performance could scarely have made the work more accessible and if it took the sting out of Berg’s demanding score, it was only in the best sense.

Berg structured the work carefully, with a symmetrical five segments to each act but, as he said himself, “No one gives heed to anything (the various fugues, inventions, suites, sonata movements, variations and passacaglias) but the vast social implications of the work.”

One could hardly fail to be aware of the frequent orchestral interludes that break up and link the disjointed scenes, played by the Philharmonia with romantic fervour, but it was the impact on Büchner’s tragic characters that made the strongest impression. At the centre was Simon Keenlyside’s superb wretch of a Wozzeck, ground down by inhumane superiors, haunted by visions and slowly sinking into mental disintegration.

It’s a role that suits Keenlyside’s talents down to the ground. He’s already played it in Paris and he gave it all he’s got. This was no concert performance but a fully-formed characterisation, ably supported by Katarina Dalayman’s excellent Marie, Peter Hoare’s crazily-obsessive Captain and Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s quietly sadistic Doctor.

Enhancing all was a background of video projections: a mix of smeary, live-action images, brief pre-recorded sequences and swirls of ice and fire that occasionally coalesced into recognisable fragments of Kandinsky. It made for a rich concoction, arguably (with surtitles as well) too much to take in, but the stylish visuals by Jean-Baptiste Barrière and his team supported Salonen’s luscious interpretation impeccably.

This was no quasi-staging, merely making up for the limitations of the venue, but a flow of expressionistic impressions: not everyone’s idea of Wozzeck, lacking the grime and grit and an experiment in form more than anything, but a fascinating evening nonetheless.


Sam Smith, Music OMH, 9 October 2009


This performance of Berg’s Wozzeck revealed just how good opera can be when singers and orchestra alike perform at the top of their game.

But it also proved how much can be lost when the process of semi-staging such a work is poorly thought through.

The final performance in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2009 City of Dreams: Vienna, 1900-1935 season, Wozzeck tells of the dehumanisation and descent into madness of the eponymous soldier as he is bullied by his superiors and cuckolded by Marie, the mother of his child.

Simon Keenlyside delivered a stirring performance in the title role as with his every encounter with a soldier, doctor or lover, his body became stiffer, his face more withdrawn, and his mind less sound. That his own voice remained so firm and secure throughout only added to the sense of his alienation, as if he in turn was unable to adjust anything about himself in order to fit in with his surroundings.

Katarina Dalayman was an intriguing Marie and Robert Murray an effective Andres. Particular accolades, however, must go to Peter Hoare’s Captain who delivered some vibrant, but nonetheless powerful, cries, and Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s Doctor who skilfully gave the impression of blurting out his words, in keeping with his comical character, whilst making each one crisp and clear. Even as they goaded each other, they cleverly suggested that they were all in the same gentlemen’s club. True, the Captain took the Doctor’s warnings of death seriously, and self-importantly contemplated the mourning at his own funeral, but their own arbitrary fears contrasted starkly with Wozzeck’s far more serious neuroses.

Esa-Pekka Salonen kept the Philharmonia Orchestra beautifully balanced throughout, and carefully managed the orchestra’s transitions from ‘supporting’ the singers during the scenes to taking centre-stage in the interludes, which required a more intense and assertive style of playing.

Unfortunately, however, Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s general conception and direction were lacking. The costumed singers performed at the front of the stage with just a few props, but in this vast concert hall, against the backdrop of numerous other bodies in the orchestra, it was difficult for them to stand out, and Barrière’s ‘solution’ to this didn’t help much.

The singers were filmed with their images projected live onto a large screen amidst swirling colours. This ‘trick’, however, was used far too often so that we soon stopped marvelling at the cleverness of the original idea, and started to despair at the suggestion that the singers could not sustain our interest in this hall unless their faces were magnified. More generally, abstract and expressionist patterns filled the screen, but other than when a few images of moons, water and clouds echoed the dialogue, they seemed to offer few discernible insights into the drama.

Nevertheless, the images remained beautiful in their own right, and the musical performances were more than strong enough to justify a listen when Wozzeck is repeated next week on Radio 3.

Paul Gent, The Telegraph, 9 October 2009


It’s one of the paradoxes of opera – indeed of all art – that you can sit through two hours of concentrated misery and come out feeling on top of the world. Especially if the performance is as thrilling as this account of Alban Berg’s expressionistic masterpiece Wozzeck at the Festival Hall.

It marked the culmination of City of Dreams, the Philharmonia’s ambitious season of early 20th-century Viennese music, which began back in February. It was semi-staged, which meant that the singers were in costume acting on a narrow strip in front of the orchestra. The advantage of this arrangement is that the orchestra escapes from the pit and the music can be heard in all its detail, and the Philharmonia took advantage of the opportunity with a searing account of Berg’s evocative score. Their new principal conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who seems to have discvoered the elixir of perpetual youth, controlled the changes of atmosphere impeccably, creating, for example, a hushed expectancy at the entrance of the Idiot that was almost painful.

Having the orchestra on stage can make life difficult for the singers, and my heart sank when a couple of them seemed to be using microphones. But it turned out this was only for a couple of spoken passages, and the unmiked singing came across strong and clear. Peter Hoare was a fine, incisively grotesque Captain, and Katarina Dalayman, playing Wozzeck’s unfaithful lover Marie, was meltingly tender in the scenes with her son. Hubert Francis made a brave attempt at the role of the Drum Major, though he lacked the alpha-male charisma the role needs.

But the evening belonged to Simon Keenlyside in the role of Wozzeck. Keenlyside is one of the few leading singers who can act as well as he sings. Avoiding the wide-eyed staggering that generally passes for acting on the opera stage, he brought a haunted intensity to the role. Wozzeck, alienated by the world, is described as a man “who runs through the world like an open razor” and Keenlyside captured the character’s danger and vulnerability even in the way he moved across the stage. It was a magnificent performance of one of opera’s greatest anti-heroes.

Less successful was the video backdrop created by director Jean-Baptiste Barrière. It showed the singers performing, but the images were almost entirely submerged in a swirling colourscape with little obvious relevance to the drama. Only once, with an image of the blood-red moon rising over the fateful lake, did it add to the impact. Fortunately it was largely possible to forget about the patterns on screen and concentrate on the powerful drama taking place on stage.

Colin Clarke, Classicalsource.com, 9 October 2009


From many angles, this is as good as it gets. Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck”, one of the great masterpieces of the operatic literature (from any period) boasts a score that surely tests the greatest orchestras. To have the Philharmonia Orchestra is luxury indeed, and with Esa-Pekka Salonen as guide, the result was a performance of immense stature. This semi-staged account was not without problems, certainly, but that it has burned onto the memory is testament to its success.

The ‘staging’, by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, takes a different line from the traditional view of “Wozzeck” as bleak, usually cast in greys and blacks. Instead, a huge screen behind the orchestra shows swirls of expressionist colours, inspired by the likes of Kandinsky, Klee and Macke. The character of Wozzeck (Simon Keenlyside) has a micro-camera placed on him, so we see other characters from his perspective in the prevailing colour swirl; three other cameras provide extra vantage points. The problem was those patterns reminded of the Windows Media Player when you’re playing sound only. Perhaps to describe it as an expressionist kaleidoscope would be a touch kinder, but the fact is that the conception triumphed over the realisation in this case. The use of stage space was better, in that by using just the gap between orchestra and the front of the stage, there was a palpable sense of claustrophobia – the world of this opera is pretty insular, after all. Only in the final act was there a change from this pattern: a huge red moon (“Der Mond ist blutig”) was projected as a backdrop.

Amplification was unexpectedly used for some singers that seemed to fail in the Marie/Margret exchanges as they admire the Drum-Major (they were simply inaudible). A shame, as the ensuing dramatic moment (and the effect of Marie’s line “Komm, mein Bub’” – Ah, my baby – after her scream of “Luder!” – Bitch!) was totally lost. Costumes were mainly apt. Wozzeck was of course in army get-up, yet I did not quite get the Doctor’s English-schoolteacher Oxfam suit.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s reading was as complete as any I have heard. Time and time again his composer’s ear for texture and for structure came to the fore. Berg organised the score meticulously (there is even a metronome marking with a decimal point at one stage). Carrying on from Schoenberg’s exploration of the use of pre-extant forms shorn of tonal workings, Berg fashions the first act as a Suite, the second act as a loose symphony but one that includes a triple fugue (the sequence of scenes yields Sonata allegro-Fantasia and Fugue on Three Themes, Largo-Scherzo-Rondo) and, most progressively of all, the third act as a series of inventions on musical parameters with an extra interlude on a tonality. So, Act III/1 is an Invention on a Theme; III/2 is an Invention on a note (B); III/3 works with a rhythm (Hauptrhythmus); III/4 is an invention on a hexachord; the Interlude between III/4 and III/5 is an invention on a tonality (D minor, with pronounced Mahlerian leanings); and III/5 is invention on a moto perpetuo.

Although the opera as a whole is at once of its time and simultaneously immensely forward-looking, it is this final act that is, in terms of musical process, the most startling. Salonen delineated each scene magnificently, honouring the compositional machinations without once drawing attention to them self-consciously (save the nature of the Triple Fugue pointing to the obsessions of the Captain and the Doctor). As a result, the operations worked on a slightly less than conscious level to successfully prepare the huge climax of the D minor Interlude, here beautifully and poignantly shaped. Folk elements (Andres’s hunting song, for example) took on macabre connotations.

An athletic Simon Keenlyside played Wozzeck (he is asked to sprint on a number of occasions). Most recently seen in London as Rodrigo in the Royal Opera’s “Don Carlo”, this was quite a change from supporting character to centre-stage focus. More than on any other occasion I have seen him, Keenlyside seemed inside the character. The unshaved appearance, the compulsive physical mannerisms suggesting mental illness, all contributed to a harrowing portrayal. Wozzeck himself is perhaps the closest we get to a complete portrait of a character in this opera: certainly the Captain, Doctor and Drum-Major are caricatures (the rushing-averse small-minded Captain, the Doctor completely taken over by his experiments, of which Wozzeck is the human guinea pig, the sexual-conquest-driven Drum-Major). Andres facilitates our perceptions of Wozzeck’s encroaching madness (“He! Bist du Toll?” he shouts as Wozzeck hallucinates expressionist fantasies in I/2), while Margret contextualises Marie’s feelings. Keenlyside managed to drag us into his eminently disturbed world, a world distinctly without a concrete Weltanschauung. Wozzeck exists to survive. His cry, which returns so many times in the musical material, of “Wir arme Leut!” (I/1) was made all the more harrowing by Salonen’s stark emphasis of the double basses’ underpinning. Keenlyside understood that the starting point of the opera is a man already crushed. And it is downhill from there. Perhaps Keenlyside’s finest moments were around the murder itself (of Marie), the moment of murder and the beginning of III/4 when he searches for the murder weapon, the knife.

Katarina Dalayman took the immensely demanding part of Marie. Her long descent that falls from the upper reaches of the soprano range right down into lower mezzo territory in the Lullaby (I/3, “Lauter kühle Wein muss es sein”) was expertly managed. Her scene with the Drum-Major (I/5) showed her true mettle, climaxing in a truly spine-tingling “Rühr mich nicht an!” (some commentators have found a link between this and the moment Leonore divests herself of her disguise in “Fidelio”). Her scene in which she wrestles with moral dilemma (III/1) was a highpoint. She successfully differentiated the Bible readings (Mark 10:14, accompanied with a gossamer touch from the orchestra) to her reactions to them.

Robert Murray was as a young, fresh Andres, although occasionally he had problems projecting over the orchestra. Peter Hoare’s Captain was superb in its unapologetic caricature just as Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s Doctor was massively disturbing in its travesty of what medicine should be. More, Scheidegger’s voice was wonderfully focussed. All of the smaller parts were taken with aplomb, but one in particular warrants mention: Anna Burford’s Margret was amazing. She is more contralto than mezzo, yet she can project to fill the largest of spaces. Louis Watkins was the sweet child of the final scene, blissfully oblivious of the actions that have been played out and, implicitly, all ready to do it again (the opera returns to its starting point, harmonically). Only Hubert Francis’s Drum-Major failed to fully fit the part; vocally all was there, but it was difficult to believe that this was a sexual lion.

The Philharmonia Voices was on excellent form, relishing Berg’s notated version of snoring soldiers. This was an amazing evening, if not a faultless one.


Neil Fisher, The Times, 13 October 2009

It would have been impossible not to include Wozzeck in the Philharmonia’s City of Dreams project, a celebration of the musical culture of early 20th-century Vienna that has now come to its end with Berg’s 1922 opera. It is perhaps the dreamiest of all Vienna’s soundscapes, except that its dreams are the worst sort of nightmares. Surrounded by the greyest, grimmest of worlds, its tragic hero – first a murderer, then a suicide – imagines visions that take him to the abyss: a world on fire, a scarlet moon, the smell of blood. And while Berg’s atonal score might be chillingly effective at evoking the dreary misery of Wozzeck’s daily life, it also opens up these terrifying vistas with monstrous allure.

You might say that music and drama this powerful require little more in the way of stimuli. But the Philharmonia sprang a surprise in this semi-staging by Jean- Baptiste Barriere, which included a complex video backdrop. It, like Wozzeck’s own world, was grounded in reality -live images of the performance – but soon these images liquefied, dissolved and shattered. Like Wozzeck, we started to distrust what was on the surface, as livid washes of colour (think of early Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Paul Klee) started first to dominate, then to curdle.

The metaphor might have been obvious, but it was neither theatrically overpowering nor emotionally jarring. And Barriere’s physical direction of the action was masterfully done: a fully observed drama in the very limited area between audience and orchestra. Marooned on this strip, where could Simon Keenlyside’s Wozzeck go? Only into the arms of his numerous tormentors, and from there to his final watery fate.

Among the most articulate of singer-actors, here Keenlyside used that eloquence to show a Wozzeck entirely deprived of it: a poetic spirit diverted to rage and bitterness, and physically compressed into a twitching ball of stress. The others could only be ciphers in his drama, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t make their mark: Katarina Dalayman’s blisteringly sung Marie, the preening Drum Major of Hubert Francis, Peter Hoare’s odious Captain and Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s gruesome Doctor, all on brilliant form.

And the orchestra played with ferocious commitment for Esa-Pekka Salonen. Unsurprisingly for a band that has spent the past nine months steeped in Mahler, his sound world seemed to weigh heavily – giving Berg’s score a textural weight and wistful beauty you don’t always hear. But Salonen also knew where this masterpiece cuts the deepest: just as it grinds to its gruesome yet inevitable conclusion.

Stephen Jay-Taylor, Opera Britannia, 9 October 2009


This performance marked the end of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s year-long survey of early C20th music presented under the rubric, City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935, and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra of which he is the Principal Conductor. There have been highlights and revelations along the way – the Berg Kammerkonzert with Mitsuko Uchida and a blistering Mahler 6, as well as a barnstorming account of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder that launched the series with such blazing fervour back in February – but nothing in this distinguished series has packed quite so shattering an emotional punch as this “semi-staged” concert performance of Berg’s first opera. Wozzeck always strikes me as the operatic equivalent of King Lear, utterly unconcerned with the unspoken pleasure-principle that one assumes underpins most specimens of public entertainment, and soul-shrivellingly grim in direct proportion to how well it is performed. You don’t want to encounter too many great performances of either work too often if you value your well-being, trust me, and after tonight’s harrowing experience, during which the work came across more overwhelmingly than I have ever encountered it before – either in concert or on stage – I think it personally wise to steer clear altogether for a while.

I put the “semi-staged” above in quotation marks because, in truth, there was far more going on visually in the RFH tonight than was ever witnessed in the Royal Opera’s antiseptic and icy “medical laboratory” staging by Keith Warner, or, for that matter, in Richard Jones’ bizarre and cranky bean-factory malarkey in Cardiff. Usually, semi-staged in a concert hall signifies little more than that singers will make entrances and exits as prescribed by the drama, and, if you’re lucky, will perform without scores. This event, however, was to all intents and purposes a full staging, with everyone in costume – military fatigues for all the soldiery, though surely the Drum Major needs to be more visually flamboyant than the rest – not a score in sight, and lit to within an inch of its life. There was also a large 1 : 1.85 video screen mounted immediately in front of the choir stalls covering virtually the whole space of the organ loft’s doors on to which was projected melismatic, slowly shape-shifting painterly imagery overlaying blurrily slo-mo-but-live images of the singers themselves.

On paper at least, as outlined by the production team of Jean-Claude and Alexandre Barrière (one of them Mr. Kaija Saariaho, I’m not sure which) the rationale and intentions for all this were exemplary and oddly reassuring – much was made of the different locations of each scene and the contrast between claustrophobic interiors and the menacing outdoors – but in the event this is not the first production team that has talked a far better and more interesting staging than the one they actually provide; and the reality, certainly in the first two acts, was that the non-stop kaleidoscopic melding of figural and non-representational forms in smeary washes of colour proved an almighty distraction, looking nothing like the intended evocations of contemporary-to-Berg painters such as Klee, Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter school as claimed, and far more like the hallucinogenic nightmares of Francis Bacon (fair enough, you might think). But it all looked unfortunately reminiscent of What Dreams May Come, Vincent Ward’s strange love-conquers-death clunker that starred Robin Williams. The whole exercise really only amounted to an opportunity to watch blown-up singers’ faces totally out of lip-synch with themselves. Many, I know, gave up watching altogether in exasperation (and God knows I know that feeling recently….) This is a pity, really, because suddenly, in Act III – the whole work was given without an interval – the visuals finally made good on their promise as we witnessed an enormous blood-red moon rise through a thick forest, to thrilling effect. Overall, however, one salutes the intentions rather more than the achievement of the “semi-stagers”, for all the hitch-free professionalism with which it all flowed past.

Matters musical, on the other hand, were more-or-less triumphant throughout. It would, I suppose, be possible to argue that the orchestra was sometimes too loud in relation to some of the singers, but that is less a fault of conductorial balance than the specific givens of this performance which confined the cast to a narrow strip of the forestage, and in pushing the band further back and higher up, meant that they were always going to be at a disadvantage in this most vocally inhospitable acoustic. (And in truth, Jurowski had no better luck in this regard when he gave a (purely) concert account of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane two years ago and planted all the soloists up in the choir, ostensibly restoring opera-house balance – singers behind and above the orchestra – but to no better audible purpose, alas.) This apart, I can only describe the results as absolutely heart-stoppingly thrilling. I saw Wozzeck in Vienna conducted by Abbado (in the same week as he conducted Elektra and Khovanshchina: those were indeed the days) and though he had at his disposal very much the first division of the Philharmonic, the playing tonight of the Philharmonia was even better, with a power and richness of sonority as to beggar belief. It is no accident that, even after the ovations accorded the singers, the loudest bravos of the evening were reserved for the band, and it is to them, their new conductor and their visionary management, that the greatest gratitude should be extended for making this evening possible.

The two vocal principals, Simon Keenlyside (as Wozzeck) and Katarina Dalayman (Marie) were both in stupendous voice, utterly secure, accurate (not to be taken for granted in this most taxing of scores) and completely convincing as characters. Dalayman’s voice, in particular, has grown considerably since I last heard her here, as Sieglinde, and now slices through the dense orchestration with a rock-solid, cleaving cut that I haven’t heard since the palmy days of Nilsson, and never really expected to again. Yet the voice remains warm and feminine, and the characterisation properly conflicted. She was, in a word, magnificent, and happy the house that gets to hear her Brünnhildes any time soon. Keenlyside sang and acted to similar effect, here in repertory much better suited to him than the Verdi against which he insists on banging his head, and even if it is at the cost of having to sit through the deathly dull Warner staging, I sincerely hope Covent Garden give him a chance to perform the role again on stage. It is one of the finest assumptions he has ever given us, crafted with a lieder singer’s attention to detail, and needs much wider and more extensive dissemination than a one-off concert can ever hope to provide.

Anthony Dean Griffey having gone quietly, and without explanation, AWOL, the Drum Major was sung by Hubert Francis, vocally heroic but lacking exactly that dimension of larger-than-life buffo bulk that Griffey would have brought to the role. Similarly, Matthew Best’s Doctor was unavailable out-of-hours and was replaced by Hans-Peter Scheidegger, perversely gaunt but satisfactorily barmy, if a tad underpowered. Robert Murray’s Andres dithered on the margins of Wozzeck’s world to good effect, and the two dungaree’d apprentices of Leigh Melrose and the aptly-named David Soar both bickered and got drunk together admirably. Fine work, too, from Anna Burford, as Marie’s troublesome neighbour Margret, though her speech in Act I, scene 3 was most awkwardly (and inaudibly) amplified, exactly the sort of detail that would take weeks of rehearsal and/or a long run to iron out, neither of which was available here. But of all the “supporting” roles, the absolute stand-out was the Hauptmann of Peter Hoare, clearly even more barking mad than the Doctor from the word go, and putting Berg’s heldencastrato vocal line across with truly impressive effortlessness. Even the kids’ chorus of heartless little monsters at the end was perfectly realised, though I did think Louis Watkins a might old as Marie’s son to be singing “Hop-hop”, still as numbly bleak an “ending” – if you can call it that, rather than an abrupt cessation of sound – as exists in all opera.

Presiding over this vast machine, Salonen seemed as always completely unflappable and totally in command: and as with several of his recent performances with his own orchestra – last week’s Firebird, last season’s Mahler 7 – he seems to be developing the kind of hair-raising theatricality of dramatic response (though unflashy as a conductor to watch) that brings these scores to full-blooded, pulsating life. We should count ourselves lucky, and hope that, patronage permitting – God knows what this must have cost – there’s more to come in the future. I await it with impatience. And I cannot end without mentioning the programme-book that accompanied this whole season of concerts, as scholarly, well-written, beautifully illustrated and thought-provoking as any I have ever encountered – and no, I didn’t have a hand in it, alas – and thankfully at the opposite remove from the overpriced and largely irrelevant high-gloss tat normally available elsewhere. If you’ve missed all this, more fool you: but at least the BBC – and perhaps the Philharmonia’s own live label somewhere down the line: after all, we’ve just had the Gurrelieder – had the microphones out, and the performance will be broadcast on 15th October. Don’t miss it a second time, whatever you do.

Gavin Dixon, Musicweb International (Seen & Heard)


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.


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