Once upon a time in 1952, when Wozzeck was introduced for the first time in front of that famously embalmed audience of Teatro alla Scala, a posse blissfully 25 to 50 years late whenever it comes to appreciate music -- nothing safer than be an oldskool snob, after all -- the booing and whistling and plain yelling was so loud that Maestro Mitropolous, from the podium, with the patience and kindness that probably ended up breaking -- literally -- his heart eight years later, when he died on the podium at la Scala conducting a rehearsal of Mahler's III -- Mitropoulos asked the audience to let them finish, and then, only then, yell and boo as much as they wanted to.
Twenty -- and then twenty-five -- years later, of course, Claudio Abbado's memorable Wozzeck got a much warmer applause. The very production we saw tonight, directed by Juergen Flimm, was inaugurated here in 1997 under the baton of the great Giuseppe Sinopoli and, in a precious b00tleg version recorded then, it remains our favorite Wozzeck -- yes, better than Abbado's, deal with it. Better than, ahem, and we never thought we'd say this, Carlos Kleiber's cabaret piece and Boulez's autopsy. Even better than our dear James Levine's sharp-as-a-Japanese-sushi-chef's-knife version.
Sinopoli's deep, infinitely refined, monstrously intelligent analysis of the score is probably the definitive one, for us, the same way we think the definitive Wozzeck -- well, Woyzeck, technically -- has the scary mad wounded visage of Klaus Kinski, in the Herzog film (an obvious masterpiece -- if you have not seen it yet, you're uncool, so finish reading this review and then Netflix it or something).
But Daniele Gatti's reading of this score, a score that could blind you with his brilliance the way staring at the sun will make you blind (or go insane), comes to us right after Sinopoli's for its warmth, its beauty, and its rich sense of the drama behind each and every note.
There are some nights at the opera – despite being crammed into an auditorium that smells like a high school gymnasium and is almost as hot as the locker rooms, and despite overpriced tickets that either cost as much as a plane ticket to Paris or London or Amsterdam or for a slightly less shameful price offer obstructed views of the stage – where there is magic tangible in the (stuffy) air. Earlier tonight at la Scala, that spark of electricity was ignited, and everything came together in an incendiary blaze of art & music laid bare. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck was just that.
The merciless direction by Jürgen Flimm called for lucid characters that were not to be pitied. Flimm understands that directing this piece successfully is more about what you take out than what you leave in or, even worse, add. The poor were not exploited victims -- unlike the Hostel-like, Troma-inspired postapocalyptic version of this opera given by Calixto Bieito -- but completely in control of their own fate, existing in a set betwixt one of Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses, brushed in a burnished reddish-orange glow. The background went from a Mars landscape of barren post-war battlefields, to a final scene filled with what can only be described as the hoverboard lights from E.T.'s mothership. It was all very early Netherlandish painting inspired, almost from a Bosch triptych, but with less orgies, sodomy, bird-headed beasts, and flying fish (incidentally, we'd love to hire M. Night Shyamalan to take a crack at Wozzeck-as-ghost-story, but it's just us, we know).
Wozzeck was interpreted by Austrian baritone Georg Nigl. His downward spiral, especially the hair-raising moments before killing Marie (voiced by an excellent Evelyn Herlitzius even if we think that last year's Marie at Opera di Roma, Janice Baird, has an edge on Herlitzius), was acted superbly. Georg had excellent control...a spectrum he displayed from a whispering, delicate falsetto to an icy delusional rant. Everything from the seduction to the knife to the murder was excellence exemplified.
Although Berg's tonal and atonal composition have been discussed to death, Maestro Daniele Gatti must have had his ear attuned to every single debate since like, forever, because tonight he demonstrated to the few who doubt it that he belongs on that very small gentlemen's club, the dozen or so best conductors working today. Gatti pwned the orchestra like the Rubix's Cube, with no cheating (peeling off the stickers...we saw what u did thare!). Gatti managed to create unbearable suspense, truly agonizing and teasing, transforming Wozzeck into Stravinksy's Rite of Spring...like a Jaws or Psycho score of opera. After that amazing balancing act Maestro Gatti, at curtain call, received the most bravi, and not because he was conducting in his native Milan. He was rightfully deserving: managing to fuse together an apparent complete dichotomy of conducting, delicate and forceful, intense and waning -- the most subtle whispers of pianissimo giving way to jarring and shattering fortissimo. All in deference to Cassius Clay’s adage.