Review: “Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011

Santa Fe Opera presented the first revival of its 2001 production of Berg’s “Wozzeck”, conceived by Daniel Slater with sets by Robert Innes Hopkins, although with a completely new cast.

The lead role of Wozzeck proved to be an effective vehicle for showing off the vocal and histrionic talents of American baritone Richard Paul Fink. Long associated with the German repertory (he is one of the world’s great Alberich’s in all three opera’s of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” in which the character appears), he was seen recently in the earliest of the great Verdi baritone roles, the title role of “Nabucco” (see my review at Fink, Valayre and Aceto in San Diego Opera’s Exceptional “Nabucco” – February 20, 2010.)

[Below: Richard Paul Fink as Wozzeck; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Interestingly, it is Fink’s performance of the Verdian role of Nabucco as opposed to his Wagnerian roles of Alberich or Telramund in “Lohengrin” that I found the more relevant to my discussion of Fink’s Wozzeck.

A baritone playing either Nabucco or Wozzeck has to act out scenes in which his character lapses into bouts of madness, alternating with lucidity. The cause of Nabucco’s madness was supernatural – punishment by God for blasphemy. Fink performed brilliantly in one of the few opportunities for a baritone singing 19th century Italian opera to draw a vivid portrait of his character’s mental instability.

But Wozzeck’s distress is not the result of supernatural intervention, but of sociological factors, and especially of the emotional cruelty of two of the males with whom he interacts – the Captain, the Doctor  – and the physical, as well as pyschological, cruelty of the Drum Major.

In some productions, Wozzeck’s three nemeses are presented as ludicrous and fantastic caracatures. In my estimation, a proper staging of “Wozzeck” should portray the Captain, Doctor and Drum Major as seeming to be perfectly normal, fully convinced that their actions are totally justified, and Wozzeck’s reactions his problem, not theirs. (I suspect most of us have personally known people who were as neurotic, manipulative, and boorish as these characters.)

[Below: the Doctor (Eric Owens, left) and the Captain (Robert Brubaker, right) taunt Wozzeck (Richard Paul Fink) about his being cuckolded; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Slater’s production met my expectations of a proper “Wozzeck”. The Captain, admirably portrayed by Robert Brubaker, was played straight – an unpleasant, neurotic soul, surely a tyrant to whatever troops he commands. Brubaker neatly handled the role’s high tessitura with distinction, presenting a person in authority who keeps his sentiments that border on hysteria only barely in check.

Eric Owens’ Doctor seemed a bit less sinister than others in my experience, but was well-sung, Owens’ large basso voice bringing the power I have seen in his roles reviewed on this website – the King of Scotland in Handel’s “Ariodante”, Porgy in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”,  and the title role in Handel’s “Hercules”. But the Doctor’s exasperating approach to human experimentation – that would create shockwaves in any contemporary medical school’s human subjects committee – presages the notorious studies in human biology actually conducted by Nazi scientists in the decades following the opera’s premiere.

The opera’s heldentenor role, the self-absorbed drum major– a true operatic villain, who poaches Wozzeck’s common law wife, brags to his regiment about it in front of all of his fellow soldiers and then beats Wozzeck up to complete his mortification – was sung and acted with distinction by Stuart Skelton. The opera’s two women, Marie (Nicola Beller Carbone), the mother of a child by Wozzeck and her friend Margret (Patricia Risley) were performed at the same high level of quality as the remaining members of the cast.

[Below: the Drum Major (Stuart Skelton, center standing on bed) embraces Marie (Nicola Beller Carbone); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

My first performance of “Wozzeck” at San Francisco Opera took place in 1962, 37 years after the opera’s premiere. The performance I am reviewing is taking place 86 years after the opera was first mounted (at Berlin Staatsoper in 1925).

The opera’s compositional  schemes remains a marvel, its thematic construction and organizational scheme appealing to any connoisseur of great opera.

One can appreciate the opera’s theatrical potential, not only in Slater’s mainstream operatic staging, but in productions that employ those experienced in the Broadway stage, as Des McAnuff’s extraordinary 2007 production at San Diego Opera in 2007 (see my review at Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007.)

Slater’s staging appropriately mixes the “reality” of the first two acts (in this performance, as is usually done these days, all three acts are presented consecutively without an intermission) with the “unreality” of the third act, in which Wozzeck, with the thankless assistance of Captain, Doctor, and Drum Major), has suffered a mental breakdown.

[Below: Wozzeck (Richard Paul Fink, in green soldier’s uniform) murders Marie (Nicola Beller Carbone, center) as the Fool (Randall Bills, left) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

When Wozzeck takes Marie to a marshy wasteland to murder her, the Fool, a character normally only appears in the second act, mutely joins Wozzeck and Marie to witness the deed. The walls and floorboards of Hopkins’ set are askew in the murder scene, as they will be a while later for Wozzeck’s death, as the blood red moon, a symbol that goes back to Berg’s original source material, is prominently seen.

[Below: Wozzeck (Richard Paul Fink, front center), searches for the murder weapon he used, while the Fool (Randall Bills, far right) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The denouement of the opera is the discovery of Marie’s body by the townsfolk, and the initiative of a group of children to inform the emotionally disconnected orphan of Wozzeck and Marie of his mother’s death. Slater’s staging of this chilling scene was effective.

[Below: Wozzeck’s and Marie’s child (Zechariah Baca, far right) told of his mother’s death by the other children, rides his hobby horse; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]

Slater and Hopkins and the excellent cast have brought forth a production of “Wozzeck” that will appeal to the connoisseur of early 20th century “new music” of the school of composition whose masters are Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. With their musicological theories and compositional styles that conceptualized music as utilizing all 12 tones of the music scale, and the abandonment of conventions that tie musical phrases (such as “melodies”) to specific tonal patterns of “keys”.

The 2011 Santa Fe Summer Festival allotted its “modern opera” spot to “Wozzeck”, which was composed in contra-distinction to the “museum pieces” of opera – two of which, of course, are this summer’s best sellers – Gounod’s “Faust” and Puccini’s “La Boheme”.

Yet, though Alban Berg’s reputation as an innovator remains intact for his operas “Wozzeck” and “Lulu”, the musical system he exemplified, that was to replace the “museum pieces” of the operatic repertory, even though it has had many progeny of operas imitating the compositional style, virtually all of that progeny has failed to earn a place in the hearts of opera goers.

“Wozzeck” and “Lulu” to me seem like museum pieces themselves, although priceless treasures, such as the best museums own, that we may revere as the finest examples of a school of art that flourished long ago, but is no longer “living art”.

In a bit of irony, this same Santa Fe season has revived Menotti’s “The Last Savage”, itself nearly four decades old, which savagely parodizes the Berg progeny in its hilarious second act party scene.

But the best examples of every form of art deserve to be preserved and revered and understood. “Wozzeck” is the best example of its genre, and will reward those who get to know it and appreciate its sophistication. I recommend Santa Fe Opera’s excellent production.