Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

San Francisco Conservatory of Music Ensemble Parallele's Production of Wozzeck at the Yerba Buena Center

Classical Music Column for the ANG Newspapers Preview Section for January 26, 2010, under headline, Berg's Wozzeck is still powerful after 85 years

The music, art and architecture of a given time often present a mirror image of the mood and mores of that time. As a potent example of this thesis, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's resident Ensemble Parallele, under the direction of its founder and conductor Nicole Paiement, is preparing to recreate the reeling Weltanschauung of 1920s Europe this weekend with a production of Austrian-born Alban Berg's fervid opera, Wozzeck.

According to Paiement, a petite, ballerina-like blonde with a French accent, Ensemble Parallele, founded in 1994, is dedicated to presenting contemporary chamber opera. She will conduct the upcoming Wozzeck production, a reorchestration of Berg's 1925 original by Montreal composer John Rea. Director Brian Staufenbiel's film noir staging uses multimedia projections by media artist Austin Forbord that are reminiscent of German silent films of the 1920s.

A down and out guy

The cast of impressively polished singers will be headed by the superlative singing actor, bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic, as Wozzeck, an honorable but victimized soldier/servant who represents the "arme Leut" (tragic common man). Marie, Wozzeck's common-law wife and mother of his child, will be sung by Patricia Green, a soprano with a three-octave range.

Singing the role of the pompously ruthless Captain will be powerful tenor John Duykers; AJ Glueckert will sing the braggadocio role of the Drum Major, who seduces Marie and taunts Wozzeck in front of his fellow soldiers before beating him up. Phillip Skinner, a versatile bass-baritone, will sing the role of the doctor who has recruited Wozzeck as a guinea pig for his medical experiments; J. Raymond Meyers, a tenor with an astonishing range, will portray Andres, Wozzeck's friend. Erin Neff will sing the role of Margret; bass John Bischoff is the First Apprentice and Hawaii-born baritone Torlef Borsting the Second Apprentice.

Wozzeck was — and still is — a work of art that can jolt human sensibilities about as much as a powerful earthquake can jog up the Richter scale. But by no means will it be opera as usual — the kind brimming with soaring, beautiful melody and cushioned by lush instrumental harmonies. Rather, Wozzeck is related to the often lurid Expressionistic movement of art and music that followed on the heels of the sparkling, light-drenched style dubbed Impressionism.

Impressionist composers such as Debussy and painters such as Monet sought to represent their impressions of people, scenes and objects of the external world in a descriptively kinetic, pictorial sense — colored by graceful melody and pleasing harmony.

Although practitioners of both stylistic disciplines characterized real objects and persons, Expressionists depicted them in distorted, tension-ridden, often fragmented images or sounds. Painters such as Ernst Kirchner smothered their subjects in thick, saturated colors, often further imprisoning them within slashing, angular black lines. Faces sometimes emerged as blank blobs of paint that look as though they were applied by a knife spreading cheese on a cracker.

Composer Berg, in company with his Expressionistic colleagues, employed exaggerated dynamics, a plethora of tritones and distorted vocal inflections (a sort of talk-sing style called Sprechstimme that sounds like the filmed portrayals of Marley's Ghost from Dickens' A Christmas Carol). Other sonic weapons they used were jagged, wide-leaping melodic passages; dissonant, atonal harmonies; and complex, intentionally unstable-sounding rhythmic patterns. Such elements were recruited to express the dark inner feelings of personalities psychologists have characterized as either distressed, helpless entities flailing about in the grip of forces they do not understand, or as the isolated prey of their own inner anxieties and irrational subconscious drives.

Goose bumps galore

And there, stuffed into a rather contorted nutshell, you have the world that faced the first half of the 20th century as well as the tragic title character of Berg's potent opera, Wozzeck — a character that Knezevic portrayed with chilling intensity during the rehearsal I attended.

Be assured: Despite Berg's sallies into Expressionistic shock, the upcoming "Wozzeck" is bound to awe you with an emotional force you will neither regret nor forget. (Although its original audiences often walked out mid-performance or even rioted, within its first 10 years, Wozzeck was performed more than 150 times in 28 European cities.)

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