Wozzeck’s madness is nothing but an increasing awareness of the hopelessness of his situation. Far from delusional, he is lucid, even poetical, about his circumstances. Nature is full of signs and portents because his fate is foretold. Despite the assertions of others, he has no free will; that is a luxury not afforded the poor. Though the Captain and the Doctor think of themselves as free and as good men, they are trapped by their own certainty that they are precisely those things. In fact, their certainties isolate them not only from themselves but any kinship with the rest of human kind. The Doctor’s ghoulish, even gleeful detachment at the sound of Wozzeck’s drowning dehumanizes both the victim and himself. The only two characters who show any humanity at all are the ones fated to die – Wozzeck and Marie. That all of this resonated on a visceral level during the Boston Symphony’s performance of Berg’s opera is testimony to the skill and commitment of both cast and orchestra. That it didn’t register as the complete gut punch it should have is the fault of a lack of balance which often found voices straining to be heard over the largest orchestra Berg ever used.

Loading image...
Christine Goerke, Andris Nelsons and Bo Skovhus
© Winslow Townson

At Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons has favored the works of Richard Strauss with their large forces when he has led operas in concert form. Covering singers has been a problem in each. What initially seemed to be a flaw now seems to be a feature. If adjustments can’t be made, it might be wise in the future to consider works requiring smaller or more lightly orchestrated forces. Taken on its own, the orchestra’s contribution was formidable, particularly when keeping in mind their lack of familiarity with Wozzeck. The orchestral interludes, stitching the five scenes of each act together, were as expressive as the voices themselves and in three instances earth-shattering- after Act 2 Scene 1, following Marie’s murder, and the titanic, searing crescendo of the D minor interlude between the final two scenes. More intimate touches like the rippling music of Wozzeck’s drowning and the snoring chorus carried equal dramatic weight. 

Vocally, however, when a voice as potent as Christine Goerke’s has to push to be heard, you know there’s a problem. Even so, she succeeded in creating a multi-faceted Marie, fraught with tenderness, passion, and guilt. Though she was the only singer to use a score, it did not prevent emotions from projecting through her facial expressions. Her volcanic, “Leave me alone!” in Act 2’s final scene would have blown anyone less alpha and preeningly self-absorbed than Christopher Ventris’ Drum Major right off the stage. Bo Skovhus managed to imbue Wozzeck with a quiet nobility and resignation despite the character’s increasingly desperate outbursts, though his fidelity to pitch occasionally lapsed into shouting as he contended with the orchestra. Toby Spence’s insufferable Captain struggled the most, straining right from the outset to be heard. Matters improved in his long scene with the Doctor in Act 2, where Franz Hawlata’s affability magnified the perversity of his character’s crackpot prognostications. Mauro Peter was a mellifluous, well-intentioned Andres and Renée Tatum an earthy force of nature as Margret. The remainder of the cast succeeded in creating distinct characters in the fleeting moments allowed them.

Perhaps a better balance will be achieved in subsequent performances at home and Carnegie Hall. Whether they will hit as hard as they can is now up to Nelsons.