Opera Review: Wozzeck, Santa Fe Opera-July 30, 2011

There have been many ‘soldier portrayals/characters’ in the annals of the operatic forum; from the comic, blustering Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, all the way to a cross between Gomer Pyle and Forrest Gump in the character of Josef Schweik in Kurka’s rather contemporary opera The Good Soldier Schweik, that dates as recently as the 1950’s.  However, there is likely no more a tragic, pathetic soldier-figure as Franz Wozzeck, as represented in Alban Berg’s disturbing 1925 opera, aptly (and simply) entitled Wozzeck.

As part of their balanced approach to operatic programming, the Santa Fe Opera rolled out a stark, and stunning, remount of their decade old production to great effect on Saturday July 30, 2011.  With darkened skies, impressive lightning, and a chilling breeze in the air; it would seem that the weather conspired in accord with the theater’s open air design to deliver an ominous ambiance that associated itself with the stage proceedings.

While musically and dramatically Wozzeck may not be for everyone, and is hardly ever box-office gold; this overall theatrical masterpiece is a must see for anyone wishing to be left speechless after the final lighting cue fades to black.  The cast was, simply put, marvelous.  In my effort to supply full disclosure to my readers, it is no secret that I have been a multi-year, rostered artist with the Santa Fe Opera.  However, this season I am merely visiting Santa Fe after concluding a very successful Ring Cycle presentation in San Francisco earlier in July.  I decided to take in a few operas in the role of spectator and supporter of the art form (and yes, my colleagues too).  But make no mistake, after decades in show-business I believe that I have earned the right to a few of my own conclusions; and therefore write this review devoid of any particular bias.

The cast, headed by Richard Paul Fink, was solid and unrelenting both vocally and (for the most part) dramatically.  Mr. Fink who possesses a rock solid, if somewhat–at times–too muscular, bass voice (with an impressive upper extension) was simply superb as the title character.  It was somewhat amusing for me to watch Eric Owens (as the megalomaniac Doctor) and Mr. Fink sing side by side–as my most vivid memories of them both are as watching them separately dispatch the role of Alberich in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with great distinction each!  (I made my Metropolitan Opera debut as Mime with Mr. Fink as Alberich in Das Rheingold, and was duly impressed by Mr. Owens in the Met’s current production this past fall.)

Nicola Beller Carbone also distinguished herself as Marie, Wozzeck’s girlfriend/common law spouse.  She sings powerfully but almost too hysterically at certain moments in the first two acts–coming close to pushing her fine soprano toward stridency.  However, she saves her finest and most impressive singing for a touching and frighteningly predictive Act III aria where she displayed very impressive pianissimi–something that is extremely hard to pull off after such robust, emotive vocalism–as is required of her in Acts I and II.  Ms. Carbone also exudes an overt, yet simmering sexuality that enhances her characterization.

Also impressive were Robert Brubaker (The Captain), whose penetrating tenor easily filled the sometimes finicky opera pavilion; and Stuart Skelton as The Drum Major.  Rounding out the fine cast were Patricia Risley as Margret, Jason Slayden as Andres, and Randall Bills in the small, but rather poignant role of The Fool.  Special mention should be made of Zechariah Baca, acting the role of Wozzeck and Marie’s young son.  His non-comprehension regarding the death of both of his parents at the conclusion of the opera, as he scampers off on his hobby horse toy, is heartbreaking; as is his frightened acting as he hides under his mother’s bed during her illicit sexual encounter with the Drum Major.

David Roberston led a balanced performance from the pit; keeping his orchestral forces in check at all the right times, but eliciting hair raising effects of volume and intensity when absolutely appropriate.  The always fine apprentice-artist chorus added amply to the evening, most especially as the ghost-faced townsfolk who seem to live in a deranged world of ongoing oppression.

* Note:  Wozzeck is a depressing story.  The title character is routinely taken advantage of by virtually everyone he encounters.  He sells his body for medical experiments, performed by the Doctor, to put food on the table for his wife and child; he is subordinated by his superior command by having to provide menial personal services, only to be derided and made fun of by both over delicate personal matters.  He is drawn to murder his own wife,  and experiences a total mental collapse which precipitates his own death.  Even the towns-children make fun of his young son over the death of his parents…an act which leads us to believe the mental torment will continue even after the stage drama has effectively ended.  We do not leave the theater affection-fulfilled, or singing any happy tune.  Instead we are left with macabre musical waltzes dancing in our head, and pondering man’s (in)humanity toward man.  I, for one, believe that Wozzeck is mentally ill, or somewhat developmentally challenged; but not so much so that he cannot function in the real world.  My guess is that we have all known someone like this in our lives…and if we have taken advantage of them, or made fun of them in any way, we should take a moment and ask for forgiveness.  As a person who has come from a family where mental illness was not diagnosed and treated properly, or early enough–resulting in tragedy after tragedy; I am keenly aware that this opera is perhaps more singularly focused, and not the wider proletariat-plight-driven tale that so many assume it is.