Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Death and the Maiden

July 31, 2011

 
Richard Paul Fink Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Wozzeck returned to Santa Fe Opera on Saturday for the first time since 2001 for four performances under conductor David Robertson. Wozzeck is not an easy opera on any level, nor should it be. It’s about as far away from Menotti’s The Last Savage as you can get musically or thematically. The revival of Daniel Slater’s well-received production from the opera’s last run here is hugely successful and, a decade on, it still impresses particularly with the forces at hand. The staging doesn’t take a breath to pause between scenes and barrels toward its inevitable conclusion right from the start. (As a comparison, this is one of the major problems with Mark Lamos’ Metropolitan Opera production, which drops the curtain between every scene change in its brief 90 minutes ruining the rhythm of the work.) There is a real clarity of focus in Slater’s version on the relationship between Wozzeck and Marie, and her eventual murder comes as far more of a shock than one might expect. The production also underlines Wozzeck’s own decline into madness with a progressive misalignment of the set, with different slices of it tilting in either direction as the night wears on. The fool, a small role in Act II, is greatly expanded in terms of stage time in order to provide Wozzeck with a haunting death-like character pointing the way to his inevitable end. The fool’s painted facial death mask soon spreads to the other patrons of the bar by Act III further accenting the doom in the air. And if all of this wasn’t great enough, the New Mexico skies opened up with one of their famous lightning flashes right before Marie’s first appearance in one of those moments that makes Santa Fe Opera unlike any other opera-going experience in the world.

Nicola Beller Carbone Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Musically and vocally the show has much to recommend it. The cast includes two of the world’s foremost Alberichs: Eric Owens as the doctor and Richard Paul Fink as Wozzeck. Both have large, well-controlled instruments that came across beautifully in the outdoor theater. Fink is a superb Wozzeck who is able to project a nebbishy desperation for his character who seems more confused than angry about his actions both before, during, and after Marie’s murder. Robert Brubaker was a mocking, cruel captain. I’m particularly fond of tenor Stuart Skelton’s Drum Major as well. Skelton, who has performed this role at the Met Opera, is great as the lascivious john who seduces Marie. Skelton will be performing Parsifal in Seattle according to bio material in the Santa Fe program, which should be something to look forward to. (The program also notes that Paul Groves will be singing the same role in Chicago in future seasons for what it’s worth.) The cast is rounded out by Nicola Beller Carbone as Marie. She has sufficient power and an easy clarity over the dense orchestration and brings out Marie’s highly conflicted character. She could turn the slightest bit shrill at the top end, but this was formidable by any measure.

Robert Brubaker and Eric Owens Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

This performance was also the local debut of St. Louis Symphony Music Director and Southern California native David Robertson. He took an approach reminiscent in my mind to the performances given by the Vienna Philharmonic in Berg’s Lulu at last year’s Salzburg Festival. Robertson brought out surprisingly lush Romantic underpinnings to a work one rarely associates with them. There is a tradeoff here in terms of lyricism over a more jarring, percussive sound. I sometimes felt I had lost the strings in the mix over the horns and winds as well. But the coordination between stage and pit was solid.

And so, an excellent and disturbing Wozzeck concludes the opening part of the 2011 Santa Fe Opera season. Of course, starting Monday, things kick into high gear with 6 performances a week until the end of August. There are a number of great shows to see this year, but with only three more performances of Wozzeck plan your time carefully, before it is gone.

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