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OPERA REVIEW : Music Center Ventures a Too-Surreal ‘Wozzeck’

Times Music Critic

Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” which the Music Center Opera ventured on Thursday, represents an epochal fusion of theatrical pathos and musical profundity.

Completed in 1925 and still modern, it isn’t an easy work and it isn’t conventionally pretty. Under the right conditions, however, it can be shattering.

The conditions weren’t quite right this time. With Simon Rattle inspiring the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the pit and an enlightened cast on the stage, the impact should have been tremendous. The sensitive treatment of the score was severely compromised, however, by gimmicky staging.

This was the work of David Alden and his designing accomplice David Fielding, an iconoclastic duo well known hereabouts for disparate efforts on behalf of the Long Beach Opera. They did treat Berg’s magnum opus as serious musical theater, which, of course, is good. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it good musical theater.

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Inventive to a fault, Alden and Fielding ignored the letter and--far worse--the spirit of the original libretto, not to mention the Buchner play upon which it is based. They turned the specifically bourgeois Germany of 1830 into a cool, nightmarish, contemporary never-never land populated by caricatures, zombies and odd political animals.

Alden transformed Berg’s Prussian soldiers into guerrillas in gaudy combat fatigues. The once-strutting Drum Major contradicted his pompous, old-fashioned music by imitating just another macho American guy with a black beret. Ah, Alban Berg in Vietnam. . . .

The formerly pathetic Marie became an all-purpose urban slut in a clingy black mini-dress. She joined the Drum Major in an explicit sex scene that, by rights, should have been accompanied on a pornograph. Berg’s symphonic andante affetuoso seemed beside the point under the circumstances.

The forbidding Doctor became a ghoul who lugged a laboratory skeleton around on his coat. The prophetic Idiot in the dance hall became a raving, straitjacketed maniac imported from the asylum of Marat Sade. And so it went.

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Wozzeck--the archetypal victim--used to inhabit a simple, hostile world that was especially frightening because it was so real. Here he found himself trapped in a sterile, shadowy, patently surreal box. The box, not incidentally, harbored cartoon nemeses, cheap symbols and pop props such as a jeep, a clock, a neon tube and a bloody coffin that served as suicide pond.

The milieu proved weird and arty, to be sure. In context, it hardly seemed frightening.

Sometimes it was inadvertently funny. The two incidental bassos who should have portrayed drunken workmen enacted a sleazy and extraneous little melodrama of lust and violent death. Berg might have been surprised. Margret impersonated a punk groupie. Berg might not have been amused.

The desperate quest for stylization and abstraction allowed Marie to own a washing machine--ah, symbolism--but since she could afford no bed, she and her son slept on the floor. “Arme Leut,” indeed.

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Rather than heighten the tension and reinforce the given drama, Alden and Field ended up creating silly distractions, introducing cool distortions and celebrating stubborn irrelevances. They played knowingly with light and shade. They made canny use of blank spaces and crazed perspectives. Ultimately, however, they succumbed to visual excess for its own superficial sake.

The plight of the tortured, guileless fool lost focus because the theatrical wizards were too busy putting on a hyper-clever horror show. It wasn’t even a well-run horror show on opening night. Painful glitches marred the scene changes. A gap at the left side of the forecurtain allowed the audience to follow the comings and goings of stage hands, extras and a chorus master in the wings. One had to assume this was not planned as a demonstration of Brechtian alienation.

If the evening had a redeeming hero, it was Rattle. He conducted with passion that never obscured subtle orchestral detail or vocal nuance. He exulted in Berg’s astonishing palette of colors, clarified the vast formal complexities and persuaded the Philharmonic to perform like an ensemble of dazzling, dedicated virtuosos.

He may have misjudged the two potentially devastating B-natural crescendos after Marie’s murder. But he compensated with a poetic summation of eternal tragedy in the great D-minor interlude that follows Wozzeck’s death.

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He also earned gratitude by doing away with the traditional, obtrusive intermissions. If only he had insisted on a good English translation instead of those awful supertitles. . . .

Benjamin Luxon seemed a bit too handsome and robust for maximum credibility as the fatally vulnerable protagonist. Nevertheless, he sang with commanding fervor and expressive intelligence.

Elise Ross brought feverish eroticism and daring intensity to the plight of Marie. If her soprano sounded a shade light for the heroic outbursts, she illuminated the Bible-reading episode with rare lyric poignancy.

Franz Mazura suggested--masterfully--that the otherwise anonymous Doctor might actually have a last name like Caligari. Francis Egerton flexed his muscles and whined deftly as the Captain, even though he muffed the otherworldly top C. Warren Ellsworth managed the gutsy platitudes of the Drum Major with bravado.

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Telling cameos were contributed by Jonathan Mack as a goonish Andres, Jacalyn Bower as the tawdry Margret and Greg Fedderly as the misplaced Idiot. Louis Lebherz and Michael Gallup did what they could to validate their ugly dance-hall scherzo. Sean Dougall personified stoic sadness as Marie’s child.

The conductor and singers were cheered appropriately when they took their curtain calls. A small chorus of boos greeted Alden and Fielding. They seemed cheerfully unfazed. Perhaps they have encountered this sort of response before.


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