Bringing the thunder of Berg: ‘Wozzeck’ in concert at the BSO

“Why is the world so sad? asks a character in “Wozzeck”. It’s hard to say. But “Wozzeck” knows. And his music will tell you.

Alban Berg’s devastating expressionist masterpiece has indeed told us for 100 years now, its score a sort of infrared vision into the darkness of the 20th century. And as Thursday night’s performance at Symphony Hall suggested, his drama – a bitterly tragic portrait of an impoverished German soldier caught in the grip of a brutally dehumanizing world – feels more relevant than ever.

Music director Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a distinguished cast of soloists in this week’s performance, which will be repeated on Saturday. And if you have an ounce of receptivity to modern opera: go for it. It’s not just an instant highlight of the BSO’s current season. It is also a rare civic event. The only other BSO “Wozzeck” in concert was in 1987. And since that opera requires a massive orchestra, you won’t find a local production anytime soon, because Boston – to its cultural embarrassment – still has no space specially designed for opera.

Berg based his libretto on a surprisingly prescient play by Georg Büchner, left in fragments when the German playwright died in 1837. Attending the play’s premiere in Vienna on the eve of World War I, Berg immediately knew that he had discovered a drama of deep social consciousness. who demanded his own dissonant but deeply human music.

A soldier manipulated and debased by his captain, Wozzeck is also experimented on by his pompous doctor and stripped of his common-law wife, Marie – the only thing he cares about in life – by an alpha drum major. Over the course of the opera’s three acts, we watch Wozzeck’s real-time descent into madness – as the libretto puts it, “traveling the world like an open razor” – before he murders Marie and drown. His madness carries the disease of his own world. “Man is such an abyss,” sings Wozzeck, “It makes you dizzy to look down.”

Performing one of his signature roles, Danish baritone Bo Skovhus masterfully inhabited the character of Wozzeck, projecting both his inner nobility – a kind of blind will to happiness – as well as his seething anger and sense of reality gradually disconnected. In the role of Marie, soprano Christine Goerke, with a superb voice, skillfully conveyed the way in which her character is completely captive to her own complex mixture of conflicting passions. At the end of Act I, as the drum major (a persuasive Christopher Ventris) approached, his cry of protest – “Leave me alone!” – had such burning power behind her that you believed her true love for the man she was about to betray.

The rest of the vocally fine cast – including Toby Spence as Captain, Mauro Peter as Private Andres and Renée Tatum as Marie Margaret’s neighbor and others – imbued this concert narrative with great drama. . Franz Hawlata stood out as an arrogant doctor, relishing the chance to experiment on his helpless patients, for the sake of science of course.

But it is Berg’s orchestra that is the real hero of this opera. Its score is a unique technical feat, applying the methods of the Schoenberg school to full-scale drama for the first time – yet Berg was above all proud of the way its formal brilliance takes precedence over its power. expressive. . The music is bubbling with psychological insight. It holds the truth of the characters’ inner lives, it underlines the intertwining tragedies of the opera, and it embodies an unmitigated force of compassion that was Berg’s own.

Thursday night, while you wouldn’t confuse the BSO with a full-time opera orchestra that has this score deep in its blood, the performance was richly detailed and when it mattered most, Nelsons pulled Berg’s huge culminating thrusts with visceral emotional force. . “My God, what a sound,” says a character with words that also apply to Berg’s orchestra. Elsewhere, Wozzeck rages that if poor people like him made it to heaven, they would be tasked with making thunder.

Berg took care of that one too. Today, “Wozzeck” shows no signs of letting up – nor does the world seem to need that urgent humanity less buried in the depths of its noise.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

At Symphony Hall, March 10 (repeat March 12)


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.

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