Philharmonia/ Wozzeck, Avery Fisher Hall, New York

New York experienced what may well be the finest opera production of the season earlier this week with a performance of Alban Berg’s daunting Wozzeck. Significantly, the locale was not the mighty Met but Avery Fisher Hall next door. The performing institution was not our resident Philharmonic but the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, embarked on an extensive US tour under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Although heralded as an “opera in concert”, the presentation allowed an inspired cast to enact the drama on the stage apron. No director was credited yet everyone performed with brutal intensity, sustaining character definition without benefit of scenery and with only vague hints at costuming. No one carried a score, and, mirabile dictu, no one even seemed to glance at the master on the podium. Still, the lines separating realism and surrealism, drama and melodrama, were meticulously observed. Power co-existed neatly with pathos.

Salonen sustained an appreciative balance between expressive violence and structural complexity, and the orchestra – his orchestra – responded with equal parts passion and clarity. The house acoustic favours instruments over singers, but the conductor somehow minimised the mush as he maximised melodic and harmonic tension.

The cast was dominated by Simon Keenlyside, who focused Wozzeck’s agonies, physical, mental and vocal, with poignant desperation (he succeeded the excellent Johan Reuter, the baritone protagonist in California performances). Angela Denoke ennobled the sordid plaints of Marie with sonic purity plus a welcome hint of innocence. Hubert Francis as the should-be magnetic Drum Major substituted cleverness for heroic swagger, and almost made the anti-typecasting work. Vital support came from Joshua Ellicott’s lyrical Andres, Peter Hoare’s decadent Captain and Tijl Faveyts’ demented Doctor.

The audience applauded wildly after the final cadence. The house was hardly full, however (no one occupied the top tier), and a surprising number of subscribers fled for the exits as the evening progressed. Even 90 years after its initial succès de scandale, Berg’s stark atonality still manages to alienate delicate sensibilities in conservative Manhattan.

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