Goerne proves a haunting and memorable Wozzeck at Carnegie Vienna festival

March 02, 2014
By George Grella
Matthias Goerne performed the title role in Berg's "Wozzeck" Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Matthias Goerne performed the title role in Berg’s “Wozzeck” Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

In an interview prior to the start of the Vienna: City of Dreams festival, Carnegie Hall executive director Clive Gillinson commented on the power of operas played in concert, without sets and costumes. By stripping away everything but the music, the fundamental quality and meaning of the work might be revealed, the experience might be more direct and intense.

That argument was proved incontrovertibly correct in November, with the concert performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and was reinforced Friday night with an involving and affecting concert of Alban Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck. Matthias Goerne sang the title role, accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Chorus, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.

Like Peter Grimes, Wozzeck is a story about madness and tragic death. Even more than Britten’s opera, the quality of the music can be easily occluded by opera house stagings, where the imagined world often puts such an emphasis on the weird that it unintentionally creates a Brechtian distance. The necessary delays for scene changes also interrupt the tremendous musical and dramatic momentum built into Berg’s score.

And the score is incredible, the full means and meaning of the opera. To a degree unsurpassed by any other work in the repertoire, the musical structure parallels the libretto to describe moment-to-moment action and the overall dramatic direction and resolution. Inside identifiable classical forms, Berg’s music first creates a world of insanity (through rigid atonality), and then draws the audience deeper and deeper into the humanity of the characters by moving towards clearer diatonicism and by pushing formal means closer to the surface and to the action.

At the center is the soldier Wozzeck: stupid, unbalanced and increasingly insane, whipped to-and-fro by the arbitrary authority of the Captain and the Doctor, cuckolded by the Drum Major, pushed unintentionally towards murder by everyone he knows. Goerne was extraordinary, the most perfect Wozzeck imaginable.

His voice is beautiful, with a haunting and haunted quality that always seemed to be matched by his facial expression. He easily fills the hall over the enormous orchestra, but what is most special is the grace and personality of his singing. His phrasing pushes the limits of Berg’s musical lines without ever sounding mannered or inappropriate—instead he makes the character sound fully human. His articulation is ridiculously facile, going beyond sprechstimme into a unique kind of singing where speech modulates singing, something Verdian.

Goerne communicates naturally, he’s not a grotesquerie out of Grosz. On his platform with other singers at the side of the stage, Goerne swayed and dipped with a naturalism that was not acting—the character was inside him, whether standing at attention, fighting with his wife Marie, drowning pathetically in the end, searching for the knife with which he killed her. And, as he showed at the end of Act II, he’s a hell of a whistler.

While the other singers were not quite so special, they were excellent vocally and effective actors. Soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, as Marie, just about blew the roof off of the hall with the extraordinary force and physical intensity of her voice, which is full and beautiful. She overshadowed Margret (mezzo-soprano Monika Bohinec) in their first scene together, but Bohinec was vivid and sexy in the following acts.

Tenors Herwig Pecoraro and Herbert Lippert, and bass Wolfgang Bankl, were Wozzeck’s antagonists: Captain, Drum Major and Doctor respectively. Lippert was appropriately vain and menacing, towering over Goerne, and Pecoraro and Bankl were superb, musically serious and dramatically absurd. Their dialogue in Act II, where they debate their philosophical views, was engrossing, and their fright in the climax of the opera, when they hear the sound of Wozzeck drowning in his futile search for the murder weapon, was real and disturbing.

Thomas Ebenstein was a last-minute fill-in as Andres, Wozzeck’s only friend—his piping tenor and supercilious affect were ideal. Even the small but important roles of the First and Second Apprentices, Madman, Soldier and Innkeeper were strong, with bass Andreas Hörl, baritone Clemens Unterreiner, tenors Peter Jelosits, Franz Gruber  and Wolfram Igor Dentl. At the conclusion, children from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus were excellent and confident.

The singers, especially Goerne, propelled the music forward for about half the concert. Welser-Möst and the orchestra were solid throughout the first act, but also a bit stiff and brittle, the music not quite flowing as it should. The performance gained some expressive warmth in the quick elision into the second act, and their sound—the thinking and meaning behind it—grew dramatically in weight. By the scherzo in Act II’s symphonic structure, the orchestral playing was a match for the singing, alive and forceful, full of tension and the sensation that they were reaching for a higher goal. The brass were especially strong, with great presence at every dynamic level.

The playing in the Invention on a Six-Note Chord in the penultimate scene was so sonically and musically beautiful that it added to the upsetting impact of the finale, the world utterly dismissive of the deaths of the characters, that indifference agonizingly shown through the eyes of Wozzeck’s and Marie’s young son.

The Vienna State Opera gives a concert of Strauss Salome Saturday night at 8 p.m. carnegiehall.org/vienna.

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