Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sam was back in Cologne to catch a performance of Wozzeck at Oper Cologne:

Un-Beautiful Losers
WOZZECK (New Production)
5 June 2011
Oper Cologne

I attended my first opera when I was about 10 years old. If Efrem Zimbalist’s only known and deeply tragic opera Landara could hook me, I dread to think what hearing Wozzeck (1925) live at such a tender age would have done to me. Alban Berg’s masterpiece, based on fragments of a play (1837) by Georg Büchner (1813-1837) is a profoundly disturbing work.

I wondered how Oper Cologne‘s new production might affect at least a dozen minors filing into a recent matinee performance. Two of them, neither one more than 8 years old, were seated directly in front of me. To my amazement, both sat still for the whole thing -- close to 100 minutes. The kids even leaned forward in rapt attention occasionally, as the episodic story of a simple man destroyed in the maelstrom of a hostile universe lurched inexorably toward its deadly climax.

Ingo Kerkhof‘s bleak staging for Oper Cologne’s production -- with minimal sets designed by Gilbert Jäkel and appropriately drab costumes by Jessica Karge -- mercifully makes no attempt to make the work more palatable, nor does Kerkhof appear to impose a thesis on the grim narrative. He is fortunate in being served by a cast that works hard to illuminate the catch-22 cycle of alienation and despair. With every vocal and physical gesture Florian Boesch projects incomprehension at a mean, pitiless world to which he ultimately responds with homicidal violence. Gordon Gietz (Drum Major), Alexander Fedin (Captain) and Dennis Wilgenhof (Doctor) take turns in exacerbating Wozzeck’s abysmal descent with some thrilling vocalism. But it is Asmik Grigorian’s Marie that is most heartbreaking. Her lachrymose account of the Magdalene narrative breathes a short respite of tenderness into the cruel societal vortex into which Marie has long since fallen. Martin Koch (Andres), Ralf Rachbauer (the Fool), Andrea Andonian (Margret), Dennis Wilgenhof and Sévag Serge Tachdjian (Workers) and Jakubus Aust (Marie’s Son) round out the closelly knit cast.

Markus Stenz explores Berg’s cheerless musical universe with resolute tread, eliciting cold, damp sounds from the Gürzenich Orchestra, which was in outstanding form.

Shortly before Wozzeck murders Marie and subsequently drowns, a persistent rumbling of thunder engulfed the house. What an effect, I thought. Shortly thereafter, as I emerged from the theater into a raging downpour, I realized that nature had played its part in making a downbeat drama all the more noir.

I’ve attended several productions of Wozzeck, including both mountings to date at the Metropolitan Opera, but I’ve never been eager to seek it out. I find Wozzeck simply too distressing.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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