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Ionarts at Santa Fe: 'Wozzeck'

Randall Bills (The Fool), Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck), and Nicola Beller Carbone (Marie) in Wozzeck, Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
The slot in the Santa Fe Opera season for a modern masterwork was taken by Alban Berg's ground-breaking opera Wozzeck. Wisely from a financial perspective, it receives only four performances: last night, the second of those four, had more empty seats than one is accustomed to seeing, many seats filled by the cast of other operas, and a handful of people left mid-opera in apparent disgust. As indisputably great as this opera is, some opera lovers want only their Verdi and Puccini. Equally shrewd in the present economic climate was the decision to revive Daniel Slater's critically acclaimed 2001 production of the opera. It is a brutal staging that takes some liberties with the way that Berg envisioned the libretto, but in a way that actually underscores the psychological developments of the story and helps illuminate it.

Richard Paul Fink and Eric Owens both made pleasing debuts in Santa Fe, as Wozzeck and the sadistic Doctor, respectively, neither so striking to be singled out but both strong. German soprano Nicola Beller Carbone, also in her company debut, was a strident, lustful Marie, a voice that was not always pleasing, growling at the bottom and often ugly at the top. Her native German pronunciation stood out in a cast that struggled to make the text comprehensible. The strongest performances came from the large-framed, bravura-strong Drum Major of Stuart Skelton (his brutal smack-down of Wozzeck in the barracks scene, choreographed by Jonathan Rider, was particularly vicious) and the twitching, self-parodying Captain of Robert Brubaker, all neurotic falsetto, angry shouts, and intense fear. Patricia Risley's Margret and especially former apprentice Jason Slayden's Andres were a little underpowered but dramatically effective.

Nicola Beller Carbone (Marie), Stuart Skelton (Drum Major), and Chamber Orchestra (Santa Fe Opera Orchestra Members) in Wozzeck, Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
In the most striking company debut of all, David Robertson was a commanding presence at the podium, weaving together the singers -- whom he cued, distractingly, by mouthing most of their words -- and the complex orchestral score with savvy and much obvious study of the music. Robertson, formerly in Lyon and now music director of the Saint Louis Symphony, has a way with 20th-century music, and the situation was no different here, with all of the nuances of this beautifully orchestrated score given careful attention. For all the opera's dissonant psychological brutality, it was the lush suavity of many scenes -- Marie's music in Act I and the red moon orchestral interlude in Act III, for example -- that stood out.

The staging opens in silence, as Wozzeck is confronted on the stage by the entire chorus of anonymous faces, setting the background of the social anxiety and paranoia the character is going to experience. Before the first downbeat of music, there is a sense of unease and hostility, which only increases in both the score and Slater's direction. At the end of Act II, scene 4, there is a two-line interaction between Wozzeck and Der Narr (an Idiot, credited here as The Fool), who says that he can smell blood (the smell of a skunk's spray had serendipitously begun to waft through the theater a few moments before Der Narr sang "Aber es riecht"). Slater expands this character, played malevolently by Randall Bills, into a mute presence through the end of the opera, shadowing Wozzeck as if his personality had literally split in two. The Fool shows Wozzeck the knife and how to cut Marie's throat, and he seems to be taking Wozzeck's place at some points in the action. His face is covered in white paint, and as Wozzeck's paranoia and the sound of the voices in his head increases, the entire cast becomes zombie-like with white face makeup as well (perhaps going too far over the top in the frantic third scene of the final act).

Other Articles:

Sarah Bryan Miller, Robertson drives a riveting 'Wozzeck' (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11)

Kyle MacMillan, Santa Fe's adventuresome operas include "Griselda" and "Wozzeck" (Denver Post, August 7)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Fink a tour de force in Santa Fe’s riveting “Wozzeck” (The Classical Review, August 4)

Sarah Noble, The view from here: opera in Santa Fe (Limelight Magazine, August 4)

John Stege, Shock Therapy (Santa Fe Reporter, August 3)

Mark Swed, David Robertson conducts 'Wozzeck' in Santa Fe (Los Angeles Times, August 2)

Brian Holt, Death and the Maiden (Out West Arts, July 31)
This is only the most prominent part of the staging that departs from Berg's libretto. In the third scene, the onstage ensemble of chamber musicians -- in the exact formation of Schoenberg's op. 9 Kammersymphonie, Berg's tribute to his teacher -- is costumed as the other musicians of the Drum Major's military band. The conversation between Marie and Wozzeck, which is supposed to happen on the street, occurs through the closed door of the flat, as Marie is mid-tryst with the Drum Major, serenaded by the chamber symphony. The other onstage musicians -- a sort of folk band that plays a Mahler-like Ländler and a badly tuned bar piano -- were handled in more conventional ways. The set is a single vertiginous trapezoidal box, raked upward toward the vista at the back of the stage and enclosed by wires at the top: receding sections of the set began to tilt at jagged angles as Wozzeck's paranoia closed in (sets, as well as costumes, by Robert Innes Hopkins). Queasy green and blood-red lighting (designed by Rick Fisher) heightened the most terrifying moments of this often gruesome staging, the first triumph of the Santa Fe Opera season.

This opera will be repeated on August 12 and 17.

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