Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Salonen @ Royal Festival Hall, London

8 October 2009

This performance of Berg’s Wozzeck revealed just how good opera can be when singers and orchestra alike perform at the top of their game.

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

But it also proved how much can be lost when the process of semi-staging such a work is poorly thought through.

The final performance in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2009 City of Dreams: Vienna, 1900-1935 season, Wozzeck tells of the dehumanisation and descent into madness of the eponymous soldier as he is bullied by his superiors and cuckolded by Marie, the mother of his child.

Simon Keenlyside delivered a stirring performance in the title role as with his every encounter with a soldier, doctor or lover, his body became stiffer, his face more withdrawn, and his mind less sound. That his own voice remained so firm and secure throughout only added to the sense of his alienation, as if he in turn was unable to adjust anything about himself in order to fit in with his surroundings.

Katarina Dalayman was an intriguing Marie and Robert Murray an effective Andres. Particular accolades, however, must go to Peter Hoare’s Captain who delivered some vibrant, but nonetheless powerful, cries, and Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s Doctor who skilfully gave the impression of blurting out his words, in keeping with his comical character, whilst making each one crisp and clear. Even as they goaded each other, they cleverly suggested that they were all in the same gentlemen’s club. True, the Captain took the Doctor’s warnings of death seriously, and self-importantly contemplated the mourning at his own funeral, but their own arbitrary fears contrasted starkly with Wozzeck’s far more serious neuroses.

Esa-Pekka Salonen kept the Philharmonia Orchestra beautifully balanced throughout, and carefully managed the orchestra’s transitions from ‘supporting’ the singers during the scenes to taking centre-stage in the interludes, which required a more intense and assertive style of playing.

Unfortunately, however, Jean-Baptiste Barrire’s general conception and direction were lacking. The costumed singers performed at the front of the stage with just a few props, but in this vast concert hall, against the backdrop of numerous other bodies in the orchestra, it was difficult for them to stand out, and Barrire’s ‘solution’ to this didn’t help much.

The singers were filmed with their images projected live onto a large screen amidst swirling colours. This ‘trick’, however, was used far too often so that we soon stopped marvelling at the cleverness of the original idea, and started to despair at the suggestion that the singers could not sustain our interest in this hall unless their faces were magnified. More generally, abstract and expressionist patterns filled the screen, but other than when a few images of moons, water and clouds echoed the dialogue, they seemed to offer few discernible insights into the drama.

Nevertheless, the images remained beautiful in their own right, and the musical performances were more than strong enough to justify a listen when Wozzeck is repeated next week on Radio 3.

This concert will be broadcast on Performance on 3 at 7.00pm on Thursday, 15 October 2009.

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