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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Opera Review: `Wozzeck’

That man, he is haunted," says Marie, common-law

wife to the title character of Alban Berg’s "Wozzeck," the

stunning final production of Opera Festival of New Jersey’s 2003 season.

Nervous, driven, and abject, soldier Wozzeck is trying to make it

in a world that he barely understands. Human nature eludes him. "Man

is an abyss that makes man dizzy to look into its depths," he

observes. Elsewhere, he says, "For us poor folk it’s all about

money." He is a blue-collar Woody Allen whose sense of humor has

evaporated.

The tyrannical Captain, whom Wozzeck shaves at the beginning of the

opera, and the fame-seeking Doctor, who uses Wozzeck as an experimental

animal, squeeze every shred of dignity from the man. At one point

in the OFNJ production the large Captain (John Easterlin) and the

bulky Doctor (Dale Travis) walk on either side of the relatively slight

Wozzeck (Daniel Sutin), visually threatening to obliterate him.

The hapless Wozzeck’s relationship with Marie (Marjorie Elinor Dix),

mother of his child (Victoria Gebert), falters. With the warmth and

affection bleached out of his life, he tells Marie, "I would give

up Heaven and happiness if I could go on kissing you." After Marie

abandons Wozzeck for the swaggering Drum Major (Jason Collins), Wozzeck

kills his love by slashing her throat. Attempting to hide the knife,

he drowns.

The clashing sounds of Alban Berg’s atonal music are an potent reflection

of Wozzeck’s tormented world. Even a dancing scene is chaotic and

dissonant, rather than jolly. Although the formal organization of

the 15 scenes in the opera is rigidly organized, Berg preferred the

viewer not to be conscious of their methodical plan.

OFNJ’s production of "Wozzeck," seen at its premiere in McCarter

Theater on Tuesday, July 8, was tense, severe, and dramatically gripping.

Performed in three acts without intermission, it comprised 90 minutes

of intensely wayward feelings.

The season-closing production is also the U.S. premiere of a lean re-orchestration

of the opera by composer John Rea of Montreal’s McGill University.

Rea reduces Berg’s original orchestral forces from almost 100 to only

21. It was first produced in 1995 by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne and

the Banff Centre for the Arts. In the OFNJ performance, the small-scale

instrumentation worked intimately, like chamber music, most of the

time; piano and harp stood out as exotic instruments. The close teamwork

of director Wim Trompert and conductor David Agler (artistic director

of OFNJ), made for a taut and evocative performance.

Instruments and singers were well-balanced on the whole; there were

a very few moments when vocalists could not be heard. The singers

handled the difficult music as if it were idiomatic, portraying individual

characters vividly, with superb German diction.

Daniel Sutin played a Wozzeck gradually losing his grip,

buffeted by his passion and fears. John Easterlin was an irascible

and arbitrary Captain; Dale Travis, a pedantic doctor seeking immortality

through his scientific theories. Marjorie Elinor Dix was a complex

Marie, tending her child with almost religious devotion, but succumbing

to the appeal of Jason Collins as the macho Drum Major. Including

minor singers and choruses, the cast was simply superb.

Austere scenery and lighting enhanced the starkness of the story.

Leslie Frankish designed the earthbound set and the somber costumes.

Hollows in the floor represented interior spaces. For the shaving

scene, for example, the Captain sat in a sandbagged foxhole.

Helena Kuuka designed the lighting from an original concept by Rob

Thompson. The curtain was up as the audience entered, revealing a

moonlit scene. A large disk of a blue moon dominated the stage while

the smaller disk of a mill-wheel turned. Reeds grew from a silvery

pond. The large disk changed color to convey time changes and shifts

in mood. Seeing a scarlet disk as he contemplated knifing Marie, Wozzeck

observed that the moon was "like blood-stained steel."

The women wore identical long mauve dresses. All had headscarves except

for Margret (Alexis Barthelemy), Marie’s neighbor; and Marie. Margaret’s

red hair would have been seen as long and full if Marie’s were not

longer and fuller.

The appearance of the men was somewhat more diverse than the women’s.

Wozzeck, the Captain, the Doctor and the Drum Major could be distinguished

by their clothes. The rest of the men — apprentices and soldiers

— wore grey so dark it might as well have been black.

Berg himself prepared the libretto from Georg Buechner’s "Woyzeck,"

a dramatic fragment left when Buechner died at 24 in 1837. Not produced

until 1914, the play became known as "Wozzeck" because of

a mistake in reading Buechner’s handwriting. Buechner’s style is terse,

yet laden with simple, potent metaphors, such as the Captain’s comparing

Wozzeck to "an open razor."

A well-conceived, stimulating two-hour symposium on "Wozzeck,"

chaired by Carl E. Schorske, Princeton Professor of History Emeritus,

preceded the July 8 performance. Participants were Alex Ross of the

New Yorker, who talked about the opera; Mark Anderson, chair of Columbia

University’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, who

dealt with author Buechner and his role in German literature; Schorske,

who discussed Berg’s cultural milieu in Vienna; and John Rockwell

of the New York Times, who focused on "Wozzeck" in the context

of Berlin’s intellectual life during Germany’s Weimar Republic. All

speakers wore their learning lightly.

In addition, OFNJ has spread its efforts in two directions beyond

the opera in the attempt to put "Wozzeck" in context. An exhibit

of paintings and sculpture by turn of the century Austrian and German

artists, curated by Laura M. Giles and Betsy Rosasco, can be seen

at the Princeton University Art Museum. And a concert, "In the

Shadow of Mahler," takes place at the Miller Chapel of Princeton

Theological Seminary this Wednesday, July 16, at 7:30 p.m.

The Opera Festival of New Jersey’s 2003 season was a well-balanced,

provocative adventure performed with extraordinary excellence. Drawing

from Italian, Russian, and German operatic traditions, it presented

carefully-matched thought-provoking works that bypassed the conventional.

My only regret is that the season is over all too soon.

— Elaine Strauss

Wozzeck, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater, University Place, 609-919-0199. Final performance of the

20th anniversary season. Single tickets $25 to $90. Saturday, July

19, 8 p.m.<


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