BWW Reviews: Carnegie Hall's Audience Votes for WOZZECK from Vienna State Opera

BWW Reviews: Carnegie Hall's Audience Votes for WOZZECK from Vienna State Opera

Was baritone Thomas Hampson looking for some last-minute pointers at last night's concert performance of Alban Berg's WOZZECK with the Vienna State Opera/Vienna Philharmonic under music director Franz Welser-Most at Carnegie Hall? If he did--his role debut at the Met is Thursday--he came to the right place, for Matthias Goerne was spellbinding as the title character descending into madness in this challenging, yet rewarding, piece. From his first scene, shaving the Captain, to his drowning as an accidental by-product of the murder of his mistress, Goerne was haunted and haunting.


The opera--performed as part of Carnegie Hall's "Vienna: City of Dreams" festival-- is based on a similarly named play, WOYZECK, by Georg Buchner, which was, as they say, "based on a true story." It told of an ex-soldier who had murdered his unfaithful mistress and, after a trial that debated his sanity, was executed. The play was unpublished at Buchner's death, at age 23, and remained so for 40 years, when Karl Emil Franzus prepared a performing edition and it became a classic of German theatre, as the first tragedy of the common man. Berg first saw it in Vienna on the eve of World War I and decided it should be the subject of his first opera, though he took some liberties with the story, including Wozzeck's death.

The first atonal opera

WOZZECK is a three-act work, performed without intermission and lasts a scant hour and 40 minutes--but I dare say that no one has ever left it wishing it were longer. It holds the distinction of being the first atonal opera--Berg's LULU would be the first 12-tone work--but you'd hardly know it from the descriptions of the music in the program, which tells of the traditional dance forms used structuring the work.

For example, Act I consists of five character pieces in the forms of a Baroque suite, a military march and lullaby, a passacaglia on a 12-note theme and a rondo, while Act II is a symphony in five movements and Act III, six inventions (though it would be hard for a newcomer to the opera to pick them out). There are also many orchestral interludes, played between the scenes, with the final music before the final scene especially gorgeous. The music is stunning, both for its variety and impact on the listener.

Concert opera--plusses and minuses

Surprisingly, presenting this particular work in concert form has its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, there are no distractions from stage business, or possible lapses as scenes are changed. All ears are on the music. Then there's the distinct luxury of having the score played by the Vienna Philharmonic (the "house band" of the State Opera), which gave the opera the depth and breadth of understanding it deserved, from its prime position on stage; the singers seemed almost secondary (though they are obviously key to the performance), placed on risers at the sides of the stage.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.


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