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Opera review: David Robertson conducts 'Wozzeck' in Santa Fe

August 2, 2011 |  2:15 pm

WOZ2_600a In Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” a soldier is beaten down by the system, becomes moon-drunk, slits the throat of his girlfriend and drowns himself. The system is the army, society, sexuality, fatherhood, poverty -- and sonata form.

“Wozzeck” returned to Santa Fe Opera for the first time in a decade Saturday night with the revival of Daniel Slater’s strident production. What matters most in Berg’s opera is that system, that sonata form. We feel for Wozzeck’s descent into the abyss, and if we don’t want to be him we must, as he couldn’t, adapt to our surroundings. Those surroundings in this opera are in the orchestra, not the stage.

This, then, is a conductor’s opera. In Santa Fe Saturday, David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, conducted his first “Wozzeck.” In an exceptional performance, he simply provided everything needed.

Attending a production of “Wozzeck” is always a schizophrenic experience. In the orchestra, Berg designs logical musical architecture. His language came from the breakdown of tonal certainty in post-World War I Germany and Austria. His lifeboat in such a situation of frightening musical –- and societal -– insecurity was to hark back to conventional musical structures. On stage Wozzeck falls apart. But in the orchestra, themes are intricately and complexly shaped and developed in updated traditional manners. Nothing could be more Kafkaesque.

Each of the 15 scenes is built upon a different musical form -- suite, movements from sonata, march, lullaby, theme and variation, and a devastating series of inventions accompanying Wozzeck’s rampage in the last act. Robertson is a detail man, and he laid all that out with admirable clarity.

He is equally a color man. Berg’s music drips with atmosphere, be it the spooky evocation of a haunted field at night or the luxuriant accompaniment to sexual lust in the beer hall. The Santa Fe Opera is famed for its outdoor setting. On a night of thunderstorms, the orchestra sounded electrically charged.

And Robertson is, finally, a passionate conductor. St. Louis has gotten used to seeing him in tears at the end of performances of big, emotional symphonies. Here he mouthed the words of every phrase as he conducted, not only drawing the singer's voices into the orchestral fabric but actually appearing to be living the opera as it was enacted.

Still, the stage and the score are different worlds not easily merged. "Wozzeck" is the tragedy of a weak man overcome by chaos, and the drama is raw and immediate. He is browbeaten by his captain. A medical doctor does medical experiments on him. His girlfriend, Marie, gives herself to a drum major.

The two most impressive singers Saturday were Richard Paul Fink, a wild man Wozzeck, and Eric Owens, who starred in "Grendel" at Los Angeles Opera, smooth and wily as the Doctor. Their scene together was funny, cruel and far scarier than the actual bits of bloodshed, horror and madness to come.

But Slater’s production is also full of showoff-y distractions. Played against Robert Innes Hopkins’ usefully conventional set, with smoothly operating moving parts, the staging works hard at overemphasizing already emphatic drama. A ghoulish doppelgänger Wozzeck, a cliché for schizophrenia, shadowed Fink. Wozzeck and Marie’s horrified child hid under the bed while his mother and the Drum Major made love.

Nicola Beller Carbone proved a hard, strident, believable Marie. Wozzeck’s only friend Andres (Jason Slayden), the brawny Drum Major who gives Wozzeck a good beating (Stuart Skelton) and the paranoid Captain (Robert Brubaker) were all slightly exaggerated figures.

The newly orphaned Child (Zechariah Baca) gets the last word, singing “hop, hop, hop” while riding his hobby-horse and ignoring his playmates. The form is an invention on a continuous eighth-note motion, preceded by an epilogue in the orchestra. Hints of earlier themes are ultimately condensed into a rocking back-and-forth nothingness.

Robertson here kept the intensity on those rocking notes so high that it was hard to tell when they were over. I could still hear them as a lingering ghost music after the musicians put down their instruments. The poor child was clearly cursed, and the audience was left to wonder why we let ourselves be so manipulated by society.

The rain had stopped but the pavement was wet. It was a dark, cold, desert night that held no promise of solace.

RELATED:

Opera review: Vivaldi's 'Griselda' revived in Santa Fe

Music review: David Robertson brings the St. Louis Symphony to Disney

Urbane renewal

-- Mark Swed, from Santa Fe, N.M.

Photo: Wozzeck (Richard Paul Fink) slashes Marie's throat (Nicola Beller Carbone) in Santa Fe Opera's "Wozzeck." Credit: Ken Howard / Santa Fe Opera.

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