Shock Therapy

Wozzeck's descent into madness is strangely cathartic

Alban Berg wanted us to see his tormented hero Wozzeck from the inside out, and that's precisely the vision that the Santa Fe Opera's revival of its hallucinatory 2001 production provides. Wozzeck's adversaries—the Captain, the Doctor and the Drum Major—plus the physical world they inhabit, plus the musical world that describes them, are all seen (and heard) as part of the distorted psychological landscape of Berg's title character.

From its 1925 premiere, Wozzeck has sustained its place as the foremost "modern" opera of the 20th century. The dogmatic German philosopher and musicologist Theodore Adorno (who briefly studied with Berg and maintained a correspondence with that "master of secret configurations") dubbed Wozzeck "a proletarian tragedy-opera" and further wrote that the opera "compels the audience at the same time as snubbing it."

As the July 30 performance attested, Berg's opera retains in full measure its power to shock and compel.
Thanks go first to conductor David Robertson's detailed work with his cast and large orchestra (including three on-stage ensembles) that, in true Wagnerian style, plays a more than equal part with the singers. Robertson controls every instrumental and vocal element of the vastly difficult score—its accompaniments, waltzes, polkas, marches and fugues—with sensitivity and often shattering effect. Those famous, ear-splitting unison crescendos in B rock the opera house, and the broadly scaled orchestral interlude following Wozzeck's death makes an immense impression.
Director Daniel Slater's staging places us deep within the tortured consciousness of Berg's anti-hero. We see, with Wozzeck, the strutting histrionics of the Captain, the sadistic manipulations of the Doctor, the compulsive bestiality of the Drum Major. The tavern scene is a nightmare out of James Ensor. And in Slater's controversial gesture, Wozzeck becomes one with the Fool, who serves as an observant, death-like doppelgänger, standing by as the alienated Wozzeck murders his mistress, Marie.

Robert Innes Hopkins' set and Rick Fisher's lighting create a visual world that mirrors Wozzeck's distorted imagination. Battered barracks walls, evocative of the death camps, intrude upon and confine the drama while allowing the action to pass swiftly from one episode to the next. In a Caligari-like movement, the set tilts and careens as Wozzeck's mental condition deteriorates.

But none of this means as much as the magnificent cast the SFO has assembled. In the title role, Richard Paul Fink is definitive—by turns pathetic, violent, incoherent, visionary. Despite Wozzeck's estrangement and madness, Fink brings out the anguished humanity of the man. Robert Brubaker's Captain, Eric Owens' Doctor and Stuart Skelton's Drum Major convey the grotesque terror that dominates Berg's image of an alienated life.

Surely, it's no accident that each of these singers takes on major Wagnerian roles elsewhere: Fink and Owens as the leading Alberichs of our time, Brubaker as Mime, Skelton as Parsifal and Lohengrin. Berg requires voices of similar authority.

Nicola Beller Carbone, too, makes her SFO debut. Carbone's Marie, in a less elemental, more beautifully sung portrayal than we often hear, carries the role with conviction and skill. Her Bible-reading scene in particular is radiant with pathos. Jason Slayden is the sympathetic Andres, Randall Bills the mostly mimed Fool.

Bertolt Brecht, Berg’s almost-contemporary, pioneered the concept of epic theater. Wozzeck might be considered epic opera, but not at all in the sense of “grand” opera. Berg has invented a timeless epic of aberration and shock.

8:30 pm
Wednesday, Aug. 3
Through Aug. 17
Santa Fe Opera
301 Opera Drive

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