Magazine article The Spectator

Overpowering Eloquence

Magazine article The Spectator

Overpowering Eloquence

Article excerpt

The concert performance of Wozzeck last Saturday at the Festival Hall, with Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting the Philharmonia and a first-rate line-up of singers, was so good that commentary hardly seems necessary. While he can often be dull and Kapellmeisterish in the classics, Dohnanyi comes to vigorous, passionate life with the Second Viennese School, and has long been the finest conductor of Berg's operas, even if he won't sanction the three-act version of Lulu.

He manages to elicit the whole range, from silky strings, spacey, alarming chords of menace, to tuttis of hideous power, while keeping a grasp on the structure which almost renders Berg's inordinately, neurotically close organisation of the work audible. So consummate is his grip on the most 'advanced' masterpiece of the operatic repertoire which large audiences will turn out for, that he makes it possible to receive its impact and then to reflect on the extent to which it is more than a smart big shocker, to adapt Joseph Kerman's eternally quoted phrase about Tosca. Kerman himself, in his helpful pages on Wozzeck in Opera as Drama, raises points which - as with most of his best questions - have never been answered.

Putting his doubts, about what is certainly a masterwork, rather differently from him: What is the function of the orchestra in relation to the drama in this opera? It seems, more than in most operas, that while the squalid, painful, sometimes blackly hilarious set of loosely connected scenes goes on its painful way, the music enlarges the dramatic force beyond the plausible or tolerable, presenting Berg's great-hearted reactions to the misery he is depicting and is fascinated by. Wozzeck only hints at the worries that Lulu highlights. Where does the action end and the commentary begin? Sometimes, even while I was moved almost unendurably by this performance, I wondered whether it was the suffering or Berg's overpowering eloquence, prompted by it, that was moving me.

As always, it was the tremendous orchestral interlude before the final scene which raised the question to an extreme degree. This great threnody, even though its musical materials come entirely from the accompaniment to the preceding drama, breaks free of it to display and make us share Berg's generosity of heart and spirit. Rather than focusing our feelings on what we have just witnessed, it gives them an autonomy which is exactly what, at that point, they shouldn't have. And yet, of course, one couldn't bear to be without it. It has integrated itself into a work which it does quite a lot to lessen the impact of, by claiming it all for itself.

As I've suggested, the dramatic performance - though without any acting at all, except for Graham Clark's brilliant Doctor (though does he sometimes think he's playing Mime?) - was almost uniformly superb. The curiously inchoate nature of Wozzeck himself was taken at its face value by Franz Hawlata, part oaf and merely one of us `poor people', part amateur philosopher, brooding more relevantly than the Captain or the Doctor on the human condition. Marie was portrayed with all the intensity one has come to expect from Deborah Polaski, though one could almost see her straining at the leash to be on the stage. Wozzeck's other tormentor, the Doctor, was so beautifully sung by Eric Halfvarson one wished one could hear him in something else too, soon. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.