What is the sound of a man drowning?
Near the end of Alban Berg's "Wozzeck," a 20th century masterpiece about the inevitable humiliation of army life, the protagonist, having slit the throat of his mistress, drowns in a pond as he tries to dispose of the knife. It is not a terrible moment but an end of suffering. Wozzeck is not a terrible man but a victim who becomes, as victims often do when tables are turned, an oppressor.
The orchestral effect is that of the release of the final air bubbles, a brief second during an otherwise unrelievedly intense 90-minute opera, and something easy to miss in the opera house. It was not easy to miss Tuesday night, however, in a gripping concert performance of Berg's opera at Walt Disney Concert Hall by the Philharmonia Orchestra, visiting from London and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. That lambent instant had an acoustical identity and visceral vibrancy that made it seem to exist outside of time.
Like the sound of one hand clapping or a tree falling in a forest where no one hears it, the image of no sound underwater can provoke us to listen intently, awaken nerve endings, accentuate our oneness with our environment. A man, terrified by his surroundings and perverted by oppression from assuming his own nature, returns to Nature, is finally, elementally, one with it.
This profound "Wozzeck" represented a kind of return, as well, to an acoustical nature for Salonen, the former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Having overseen the opening of Disney Hall in 2003, this is the first time he has appeared in the venue, his orchestral home for six years, with the Philharmonia, of which he is now principal conductor and artistic advisor.
The Philharmonia has changed radically since its visit to Disney in 2008 with its outgoing principal conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi. Sticking to symphonic standards, the orchestra played with grim determination. Its ensemble then was hardly stellar and in need of new blood. The Philharmonia has found it.
"Wozzeck," which Berg began composing in 1917 after his horrendous experience serving in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, requires a very large orchestra. The lowly soldier Wozzeck, who is a subject for medical experiments by the army doctor and for psychological experiments by his captain, is incapable of mastering the world around him. That world is the orchestra, which represents everything, including Wozzeck's developing madness and his mistress Marie's lustful yet indifferent attraction to a peacocky drum major.
Berg wrote each of the opera's three acts using formal symphonic devices. But he also used the orchestra as a huge dramatic color palette. During a convincing performance of "Wozzeck," the listener's brain seldom can be expected to so split that it follows a fugue and a man's mental decay.
But this "Wozzeck" had it all, with the orchestra and singers in ideal balance. Those singers were terrific. They sang from memory and, though without a director and left to their own devices (not always a good idea), were highly theatrical.
In the title role, Danish baritone Johan Reuter distilled the Wozzeckian quality of obedient disorientation. He walked in this world but wasn't of it. He murdered Marie not so much in a jealous rage as in a hopeless attempt to find peace. He sang with mesmerizing conviction.
Angela Denoke's Marie, as the mother of Wozzeck's child, was a woman clearly in need of release from the suffocating Wozzeck yet torn and uncertain. She added a smoldering sexuality.
The large cast — which included Peter Hoare (the Captain), Hubert Francis (Drum Major), Joshua Ellicott (Wozzeck's friend Andres), Anna Burford (Marie's friend Margret) and Zachary Mamis (Marie's child) — was admirable. Even Kevin Burdette, who flew in from New York early Tuesday morning to substitute for an indisposed singer, proved solid as the vain Doctor, although he did need to use a score.
The real star, though, was Salonen, who will return to Disney at the end of the month to lead two weeks with the L.A. Phil. He captured the ever-shifting atmosphere, the shifts from spooky scenes in the woods to the bawdy ballroom and the tyrannical barracks life with uncanny accuracy. Instrumental details stood out with gleaming clarity, each dramatically adding up. Having just performed this "Wozzeck" at UC Berkeley, the Philharmonia was beefed up by a chorus and offstage band musicians from the university.
Los Angeles Opera last presented "Wozzeck" in 1988. That was quite a few wars ago and who knows how many psychologically destroyed soldiers since then. We were long overdue. The sound of man drowning has continuing resonance.
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