Long Beach Opera, reaching its 20th season and having done practically nothing by the book, mounted its 53rd new production Saturday night. The opera is “Wozzeck.” But this being Long Beach Opera, which means opera as adventure and discovery, not convention, nothing is as it seems. The opera was not Alban Berg’s famous work. It was Manfred Gurlitt’s “Wozzeck.”
A strange chapter in music history, this. Gurlitt’s opera was written at the same time as Berg’s. And both composers adapted their librettos themselves from the same dramatic sketches by the 19th century playwright Georg Buchner. Gurlitt’s opera had its premiere in Bremen in 1926, only four months after Berg’s “Wozzeck” was first heard in Berlin. Berg’s opera was a sensation and has entered the standard repertory; Gurlitt’s remained obscure until recently revived in Germany.
Part of that obscurity has to do with the fact that Gurlitt was allied with no dominant compositional school at the time he wrote “Wozzeck.” Although Gurlitt’s musical style was less complex and less atonal than Berg’s, he was still modern enough to offend the Nazis. He fled Germany in 1939 for, of all places, Japan. There he set about promoting German opera, and he remained in Tokyo until his death in 1972.
Dramatically, Gurlitt’s “Wozzeck” follows Berg’s quite closely. Both composers set much of Buchner’s text directly, so the librettos have many patches of the same text. That was mitigated somewhat by Long Beach’s production being sung in a prosaic English translation by Marc von Henning, but it is still very hard to get Berg’s music out of one’s head.
Even more striking is the fact that while Gurlitt’s music tends to be more overtly theatrical than psychological and has less personality than Berg’s, the two composers followed a similar compositional procedure of using standard forms, like sonata or chaconne, for a sequence of short scenes.
Ultimately, though, the effect of Gurlitt’s opera, at least in the intelligent production and excellent performance at the Carpenter Center of Cal State Long Beach, was in many ways different than Berg’s. The production by Julian Webber is performed on Anthony MacIlwaine’s bare Expressionist set that juts off the stage, a grid with squares cut into it like windows on the wall of a building lying on its side. The sorry story of a soldier oppressed by the army and love is updated to the Second World War in a realistic way that doesn’t grate with history.
As in Berg, Wozzeck is a bass baritone role, but there is more fever and passion in Berg’s extravagant protagonist than in Gurlitt’s. Berg’s character is a truly pathetic victim made crazy by a world he cannot comprehend or control. But as sternly acted and powerfully sung by Stephen Owen, Gurlitt’s Wozzeck is more the believable ordinary soldier worn down by war. Marie, his lover who deceives him and whom he stabs, is lusty but more callous and has more flamboyant music to sing than Berg’s equivalent. Helen Todd was commanding in the role.
The stark production seemed to fit the music, but it required much of all the performers, and all were theatrically compelling and musically capable. Monte Jaffe was the captain who torments Wozzeck; Brad Cresswell, Andres Wozzeck’s not too helpful friend; John Atkins, Marie’s drum major lover; and the ever amusing John Duykers as maybe too bizarre a doctor who experiments on Wozzeck.
Neal Stulberg vividly conducted a small orchestra that sounded well rehearsed in difficult and unfamiliar music. The small chorus, too, was very good. Stulberg, Webber and MacIlwaine were the team who made a success of Janacek’s “House of the Dead” last season, and here with a less rich but still compelling work they have done it again.
The epilogue was special. Marie murdered and Wozzeck drowned, the curtains rose to reveal the backstage while the orchestra performed an elegiac cantilena. The chorus filed out in street clothes. All stage illusion was gone. The effect was simple, daring and deeply moving. And maybe symbolic.
Long Beach Opera, which disappears from view most of the year, now seems to spring from nowhere for two weekends each June. Cal State Long Beach does less than it should to capitalize on this major resource. The audience was too small. Little noise was made about this production. There should be much more.
* Long Beach Opera repeats Gurlitt’s “Wozzeck” Sunday, 4 p.m., $30-$70, Carpenter Center, Cal State Long Beach.