Fink a tour de force in Santa Fe’s riveting “Wozzeck”

August 04, 2011

Richard Paul Fink in "Wozzeck" at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Few opera productions receive the kind of instant international acclaim that Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck garnered in 2001. To mark the tenth anniversary of that much-feted production, the company is presenting a brief revival this summer — just four performances — helmed once again by director Daniel Slater, this time with an entirely new cast.

The result, presented Wednesday night, was a riveting experience, as richly sung and magnificently conducted a performance of this dark tale as one is ever likely to hear in a production that — with one exception — put across the social bleakness, existential dread and dark humor with shattering conviction.

Berg’s 1922 work remains the most influential opera of the 20th century and, arguably, the finest. Adapted from Georg Büchner’s unfinished play about an impoverished soldier who murders his mistress,. Büchner — and Berg — see Wozzeck as an alienated Everyman, a damaged yet reasonable person who is surrounded by a milieu of vice and amorality.  Authority figures are more unhinged then the disturbed Wozzeck and it is impossible to even figure out what it means to be “a good man,” much less live as one in such a desolate landscape.

Berg’s modified serialism fits the bleak scenario masterfully, the jumpy, restless astringency, banal march-like motifs and wrong-note lyricism reflecting the disordered psyche of the title protagonist.

Slater’s audacious staging remains an extraordinary achievement. In silence, Wozzeck walks on a darkened set and looks out at the audience in frightened confusion; the cast of fifty then enters from the back of the stage and stops, also staring out at the house. The Captain steps forward and Wozzeck creeps self-consciously to the barber chair, an unwilling participant in his own unfolding tragedy, as the opera begins. Slater’s staging, aided by Robert Innes Hoplins’ drab clapboard sets and Rick Fisher’s evocative lighting, is smart, fluid and inspired almost across the board.

In the title role, Richard Paul Fink delivered a career performance, a tour de force portrayal of the brutish and unhinged Wozzeck. With his hunched shoulders, cringing gestures and awkward, ungainly movements, Fink’s Wozzeck seemed to embody the character’s disordered mental state in his very being, a pitiable man-boy creature, almost Lear-like in his preordained tragedy. Vocally, Fink’s robust baritone had the score nailed with its dizzying leaps and dynamic drops, bringing an emotional penetration and taut conviction to every scene.

Nicola Beller Carbone as Marie and Stuart Skelton as the Drum Major in Santa Fe Opera's "Wozzeck." Photo: Ken Howard

As Marie, Nicola Beller Carbone initially looks a bit too regal for Wozzeck’s slutty mistress. But the statuesque German soprano likewise brought a rich voice and dramatic conviction to Marie, from amoral floozy — wrapping her mile-long legs around the Drum Major — to penitent sinner. Beller Carbone likewise handled the challenging score with vocal security and passion, rising to her final scene with searing emotional intensity.

The sole staging miscalculation — and it’s not an insignificant one — was to have the Fool as a kind of omnipresent Death figure in Act 3 — handing Wozzeck the knife and showing him how to cut a throat, directing the boy’s actions, and luring and entrancing Marie. This conceit came off as intrusive and heavy-handed, creating an unwonted visual distraction and diluting the drama and mounting tension between Wozzeck and Marie.

The rest of the cast was on the same inspired level as the two principals, each etching a memorable character and tackling Berg’s sprechstimme with security and panache. Robert Brubaker wittily conveyed the neurotic Captain with his drolly pompous and contradictory bromides, his high tenor assaying the stratospheric leaps of the punishing vocal line. Likewise Eric Owens was both unsettling and quietly hilarious as the quack Doctor with his experiments and strange health advice (“Beans, Wozzeck, eat nothing but beans.”). Stuart Skelton was aptly booming and loutish as Marie’s lover, the Drum Major.

Of the rest, Jason Slayden was a light-voiced Andres, Patricia Risley a slatternly Margret, Joe Shadday a fine Soldier and Randall Billis the too-present Fool. Zechariah Baca as the child of Wozzeck and Marie, handled the role naturally without any child-actor-ish tropes. Under Susanne Sheston’s direction the chorus performed with vocal power and brought keen dramatic focus to their challenging assignments.

In the pit David Robertson laid out Berg’s score with extraordinary clarity, scrupulous balancing and in iridescent detail. The gifted Santa Fe Opera Orchestra musicians responded with some of their finest playing of this and recent seasons — taut, acutely colored and bone-chilling.

Wozzeck will be repeated August 12 and 17.; 800-280-4654.

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