History in the making in 2023 – Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” performed “live” for the first time in New Zealand

Orchestra Wellington presents:

RED MOON – Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” (1925) arr. Eberhard Kloke

Cast: Wozzeck – Julien Van Mallaerts
Marie – Madeleine Pierard
Captain – Corey Bix
Drum Major – Jason Collins
Doctor – Paul Whelan
Andres – Alex Lewis
Margret – Margaret Medlyn
First Apprentice – Robert Tucker
Second Apprentice – Patrick Shanahan
Soldier – Richard Taylor
Idiot – Corey Bix
Marie’s Child – Ivan Reid

The Tudor Consort (Music Director – Michael Stewart)
Schola Cantorum of St Mark’s School ( Music Director – Anya Nazaruk)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (Music Director)

Director – Jacqueline Coats
Stage Manager – Janina Panizza
Lighting Design – Daniel Wilson

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 11th November, 2023

It’s the stuff this country’s musical legends are made of, joining occasions notable for their uniqueness such as (off the top of my head) Igor Stravinsky’s conducting of the then NZBC Symphony in 1961, the first-ever “at home” performance of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” at the 1990 Wellington International Arts Festival, Michael Houstoun’s ground-breakingly-complete cycle in 1993 of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and the first all-New Zealand cast performance of a Wagner opera, Parsifal, in 2006 in Wellington – readers with longer and/or sharper memories than mine will doubtless construct their own “pantheon “ of legendary home-grown occasions to which this one might well be added.

I’m referring by association to the incredible achievement of all the people involved with Saturday evening’s performance in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre of Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck”, a work which had its own first performance in 1925 in Berlin, and has thus taken almost a hundred years to get to these shores and be performed “live”.  But that’s just what Marc Taddei, Orchestra Wellington, the singers and the associated creative team managed to finally “bring off” – and, to add appropriate lustre to the occasion, with the confidence and surety that gave the presentation the kind of elan and brilliance that took one’s breath away! Though it was one might call a “semi-staged” production, and the deployment of the singers might, in my opinion, have on occasions been differently undertaken to the work’s greater advantage, the sheer commitment, verve and aplomb of the singing and playing never faltered throughout the entire evening, as evidenced by the sustained applause at the work’s end.

Conductor Marc Taddei in his pre-performance talk earlier in the evening characterised the performance of “Wozzeck” as the culmination of Orchestra Wellington’s 2023 season of works which had been “looking to opera for increased representation of the “human” spirit”, and finding at the end an opera which presents that very spirit in totally unvarnished form – it “lays bare the lie that the poor can simply get on with their lives and survive”, though Berg himself was adamant that “what happened to Wozzeck can happen to anyone who is subjugated by others and cannot defend himself”. In this opera there’s no institutionalised or miraculously-produced “force for good” which speaks up for Wozzeck, alerting us to the uncomfortable fact that it will have to be us, the audience members, who will need to do so, to look at the tougher parts of life and not look away. As one commentator wrote of the character of Wozzeck – he is “a metaphor for one of the opera’s fundamental concerns – the generative, toxic force of societal humiliation”……

Jacqueline Coats’s production here put the performers together on the normal orchestral platform of the Michael Fowler Centre, giving each of the singers a degree of  elevation in their scenes but keeping them largely behind the orchestra. This certainly directed one’s focus onto the opera’s music rather more than its stage action – something that I didn’t object to in principle, it being semi-staged anyway – but here it had the disadvantage of distancing each singer’s character from the audience, both physically and vocally, the faces and figures of the singers feeling somewhat “removed” from us, and the voices having to cut through from the rear the sometimes crowded acoustic sound-picture taken up by the orchestra.

It wasn’t until Act Two’s Scene Four (the dance-scene in the beer garden), that the Two Apprentices and Wozzeck were brought forward, almost to the front of the stage, the Apprentices with their “brandy wine” verses, and Wozzeck’s bitterly-voiced condemnation of his wife Marie’s dancing with the handsome Drum-Major – suddenly, what a difference to the immediacy of the characters before us this closeness made! In the following scene in the Soldiers’ barracks the sleepers were arrayed again out the front on the floor, which surely should have been where the Drum-Major’s and Wozzeck’s confrontation took place – but they were returned to behind the orchestra once again. Both voices could clearly be heard, but if only they had been closer to give us more of the physical flavour of their set-to! True, the singers acted primarily with their voices rather than gesture and movement, but simply their closer physical proximity would have brought more of the characters’ salient defining features into focus, advancing the story’s theatricality and impact.

If I seem to be making too much of this “placement” of the singers, I should emphasise all the more that all of the voices had sufficient strength to properly sound their words from wherever they were placed – so while it often looked more oratorio-like than operatic in terms of stage action, it was all well-served by both voices and instruments as regards the work’s musical values. And as we had briefly but tellingly observed with Orchestra Wellington’s recent foray into the music of one of Berg’s contemporaries Anton Webern, Marc Taddei and his players seemed to revel in the complexities and varieties of the composer’s scoring, unflinchingly addressing the expressive power of countless moments in the work, examples being the two horrifying orchestral crescendi following Marie’s murder by Wozzeck, and the naked anguish of the full orchestra’s final interlude separating  Wozzeck’s drowning from the children bringing news of Marie’s death to her child, who in a wrenching moment of bathos concludes the opera by continuing to ride his hobby-horse (these and other moments seeming to lose nothing of their power in arranger Eberhard Kloke’s judicious score reductions). But in addition, all of these things were set in stark contrast to the opera’s manifold beauties and delicacies of scoring in places, stressing the piteous aspect of the work’s tragedy  – for example, the beautiful sonorities of the string and brass playing echoing Wozzeck’s fearful rant while in the fields, with his  “Ein Feuer! – Ein Feuer” outburst; and again when accompanying his friend Andres’s tender concern as the latter led his disconsolate friend away to home. Conductor Marc Taddei’s wondrous grasp of the ebb and flow of these disarming contrasts and his players’ ability to deliver the full range and force of their extremes made in itself an unforgettable impression.

Just as astonishing were the performances of all of the singers, triumphing over their at times awkward stage placements with what seemed like the utmost commitment and confidence. In the title role, Julien van Mellaerts laid bare the both the quiet desperation and the frightening hallucinatory torment of the poor soldier, his piteous attempts at explaining his situation falling on deaf ears all about him, undermining his relationship with his wife Marie and driving his desperation to an abyss of madness. He conveyed so many telling vocal contrasts in places such as between his first-scene phrase “It must be fine indeed to be virtuous”, and the following cry “If we should go to heaven we shall be thunder-makers!” – again, I thought his all-too-brief front-of-stage moments in the Act Two dance scene after he witnessed Marie’s consorting with his rival, the Drum-Major, straightaway conveyed by dint of his immediacy more of the sense of a theatrical character, something his performance as a whole deserved to be allowed to generate more often. Alex Lewis as Wozzeck’s more straightforward friend and fellow-soldier Andres consistently used his fine voice freshly and lyrically, such as in his attempts to distract his friend from his disturbing hallucinations when together in the fields, and in the Act Two dance-hall scene with his guitar-accompanied ballade.

In the very opening scene we relished Corex Bix’s Captain conveying all of his character’s patronising and judgemental sanctimony in his attitude to Wozzeck, the latter becoming both the vehicle for and object of his superior’s derision, a default setting which stretched like a spider’s web over most of the drama. In addition, he ably brought to life the small but significant part of the Idiot at the dance who tells Wozzeck that he “smells blood” as Marie and the Drum Major are flagrantly dancing, while the drunken Apprentices (Robert Tucker and Patrick Shanahan in turn, sounding nicely unbuttoned and with alcohol having unloosened their tongues, to risible effect) are philosophising on the nature of human existence.

As Wozzeck’s ill-fated wife Marie, Madeleine Pierard conveyed a splendidly rich and tangible vocal presence, her voice easily riding atop the orchestral textures, and relishing the score’s tenderer moments with her (here invisible) child in places like her Act One Scene Three “Lullaby” song “Hansel, spann Deine sechs Schimmel an….” , so very beautifully accompanied by the orchestra’s  tuned percussion, and also in her gloriously guilt-ridden “jewel song” (her feelings underlined by lurid stage lighting) when considering the Drum Major’s gift to her of a pair of earrings. Though she wasn’t ever brought to the front of the stage during the production, her interactions with various other characters, such as her neighbour Margret, and the Drum Major, not to mention Wozzeck himself, were admirably conveyed by vocal means, even if we missed the dramatic impacts of more tangible physical gesturings in places such as her tryst with the Drum Major – it was left to the orchestra to express all too graphically the paroxysms of desire and lustful action between the characters.

As Margret, one of Marie’s neighbours well aware of what was going on and constantly at logger-heads with Marie, Margaret Medlyn (who had previously played Marie’s character in an Australian production some years ago) made a suitably inquisitive and self-righteous-sounding bystander, both in the street when watching the Drum Major passing with his band, and at the second dance scene in Act Three. Though essentially one-dimensional a character, Jason Collins’s libidinous Drum Major readily conveyed his character’s concupiscent appetites and brutal nature by dint of his boastful, vainglorious tones and gestures, his word-made-flesh moment being the beating he gave the unfortunate Wozzeck in the soldier’s barracks at the end of Act Two.

Another authoritative symbol of Wozzeck’s oppression was the figure of the Doctor (assertively and sonorously  portrayed by Paul Whelan), with whom Wozzeck had entered a kind of arrangement involving various idiosyncratic medical theories which the Doctor tests by using Wozzeck as a kind of guinea-pig, and for which he pays the latter a mere pittance. Though not an actual physical assault, perhaps the opera’s most mean-spirited act of humiliation inflicted upon Wozzeck was perpetrated by both the Captain and the Doctor together, meeting Wozzeck out on the street and callously insinuating to him the gossip involving Marie’s infidelities with the Drum-Major, leaving him distraught and undone at the realisation of his wife’s betrayal.

The opera delineates processes by which human capacity for suffering can reach destructive limits through unrelieved and often institutionalised neglect and abuse – Wozzeck’s tragedy is his victimisation through such processes, giving him insufficient means of escape from such a descent and from such a place. Besides its individualisation such processes can have effects which are both transmittable and hereditary – though Marie’s murder is shocking, just as disturbing and piteous are Wozzeck’s visions and phobias which took him to such a murderous state. Also just as disturbing is the opera’s final scene, in which Marie’s and Wozzeck’s child is confronted with the news from his playmates of his mother’s death (and later, by extrapolation his father’s death by drowning at the same time) – to which the boy’s response is to repeat a simple playground chant as he rides his hobby-horse off somewhere – a moment’s stunned silence after the child leaves brought home to us the idea that the child now has no-one to take care of him, his parents having been obliterated in a suitably shocking manner, and he is left in a world which has demonstrated over the past hour and a half of operatic presentation little or no sign of caring, and left us with the realisation that unless we care about such things nothing of the kind will change.

After that “moment” there was heartfelt and sustained applause for all concerned, with the reaction continuing afterwards with talk into the night as to what it had all meant, a removal from our (well, for most of us!) normal experience and an immersion into the stuff of nightmares resulting in desolation and despair – and all rounded off with a repeated childlike cadence that bleakly commented on existence emptied-out of hope and redemption. What a work, and what an experience for us all!…….