a controversial video

I went with a friend to the performance of Berg’s Wozzeck at the Royal Festival Hall which ended the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s City of Dreams season.

I did some background reading for this by digging out my copy of Douglas Jarman’s Cambridge guide to the opera, which I acquired by an unusual route. I learnt a lot from the primary sources and analysis in this book, though there were topics it didn’t really touch on. I would rather that the long and elaborate account of the recovery of Büchner’s play (which doesn’t really have any bearing on the opera except for accounting for the existence of its source) had been dropped or abridged in favour of some discussion of the orchestration, or the allusions to other musical works.

The controversial aspect of this performance was the video which was projected behind the orchestra. I can’t comment much on this, because I decided that there was enough going on without it and decided to ignore it, which was fairly easy to do in the rear stalls. From what I saw out of the corner of my eye I got the impression it neither added nor detracted very much. I think the definitive comment on this video came from The Classical Source.

The performance was semi-staged, with the singers costumed and acting on a strip at the front of the platform. This entailed a certain amount of compromise, with the wood-chopping of the second scene becoming peeling potatoes and not too much dancing in the tavern scenes. But within these limitations there was still room for the essential relationships to come across.

With the orchestra liberated from the pit, it was possible to appreciate just how violent the score can get. (A usually rather neglected group of performers in this work, the chorus, also came over more clearly than they usually do.)

I had come to hear Simon Keenlyside in the title rôle and he did not disappoint, integrating a expressive range of vocal colours and techniques with the body language to match the text, perhaps most tellingly in his realisation of what he had done immediately after the murder. He was well supported by the rest of the cast, several of whom I’d heard in their rôles in other performances.

Four-star reviews appeared in the Telegraph and Guardian.

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