Those closing bars of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, tottering away into nothingness, is one of the great nexus points in musical history. Drawing upon the coda of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka, where the Russian’s ballet staggers in similar fashion to a stop, it was the signal moment in Berg’s opera that demonstrated, contrary to popular prejudice, the Austrian composer’s openness (as well as that of his Second Viennese School colleagues) to other composers and musics that ran counter to his own melos. Berg inverted and expanded Stravinsky’s drama of puppet as human, turning instead a glaring light on humanity as puppets, moving along the strings of an inexorable destiny towards an ignoble demise. Investing the scenario with all the power and breadth of expression that German opera – as well as symphonic music – had developed in the century that preceded it, as well as the gritty Expressionism taking hold of Central Europe at the time, Wozzeck sublimates all these influences into a statement at once personal and universal. A feverish glimpse of army and urban life, a portrait of the precarious peace Europe found itself in the wake of the Great War, and of the composer’s ability to invest the new with the tradition of the past, as evinced by his evocations of the genres and idioms of his musical forebears.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

At the center of this nexus stood Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s emeritus conductor, with his current band, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Both a composer and a conductor, Salonen knew well the myriad strands of modernity and tradition that criss-cross Berg’s opera. Wagnerian luxuriousness as well as Stravinskian pithiness grappled each other in a reading of Wozzeck that was as much cathartic, white-hot drama as it was the music of the 20th century wrestling with itself and the direction it was to take. Classicism and neo-Romanticism, modernism and tradition, individual and collective writhed in bloody combat.

Salonen presided over an interpretation of Wozzeck at once elemental and calculating; unleashing waves of terrifying orchestral power, yet never losing control of the work’s masterly architecture. He carefully conserved the music’s power, only letting the Philharmonia off the leash at critical junctures: Marie’s seduction by the Drum Major, Wozzeck’s discovery of her infidelity, and her murder at her jilted lover’s hands. Passacaglia led to sinfonia led to theme with variations, with Salonen remaining ever attentive to Berg’s structure, enhancing the drama’s inevitability; the downfall of all its characters as shuddering wrecks of humanity careening down the tracks of predestination.

The cast – uniformly strong – wrenched from the opera expressions of deep pathos; of humbling humanity withering in the portentousness of the inhumane. Baritone Johan Reuter’s Wozzeck was a defeated figure, yet remaining curiously defiant, even as the world slowly closed its vice around his neck. Frantic, mad, yet touched deeply with tenderness, love, and hope, Reuter’s Wozzeck cut into the listener; haunting the listener’s memory much like his subsequent death does in the orchestra. His Marie, sung by Angela Denoke, was feminine warmth itself; never stooping to playing Marie as the demented creature she sometimes can appear to be. Denoke invested the role with a frailty and honesty that gave Marie a three-dimensional presence: a Marie not as depraved vamp, but as loving mother and still loving, if somewhat confused, lover. The tragedy of her life – the dullness that she seeks relief from in the arms of the Drum Major; her slaughter at the hands of the man she once loved – manifested itself with glaring clarity. Marie, in Denoke’s hands, was a marionette staging within a marionette staging. Her love, her desires, her wants were set forth out of her hands; unable to move her destiny by those whose own destinies eluded their grasp. The supporting cast was equally fine with Kevin Burdette’s Doctor standing out. The slight hesitance and stiffness in his singing of the role – he was a last-minute replacement for another singer that fell ill – suited the chillingly cruel character he played.

The Philharmonia, possessing a lighter sonority than Disney Hall’s house band, made an ideal orchestra for Berg’s voluptuous language. There creeps up at moments in the composer’s music a tendency for the orchestration to take on a thick, Schumannian sound; a striving for varied tone-colors ultimately resulting in an aural sludge. Salonen and the Philharmonia delineated the composer’s densely layered soundworld with gorgeous translucence, revealing Berg with a capacity for pellucid orchestration that rivaled his friend Anton von Webern’s in precision and beauty. The UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and the members of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir were superb, as was the off-stage marching band comprised of members from the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.

For all the opera’s blood, all its automatonic violence, its reception by the audience that packed Disney Hall was enthusiastically appreciative. A standing ovation with multiple curtain calls that was richly deserved. It is only November, but this will in all likelihood be remembered as Southern California’s opera event of the year, if not the decade. A towering performance – and a mercilessly grim reduction of existence sputtering machine-like into a void.