Canadian Opera Company

by Alban Berg

Dates 31 March, 5, 8, 11 and 13 April 2006 at 7:30 p.m. and 2 April 2006 at 2 pm Venue Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East, Toronto

Wozzeck Pavlo Hunka Marie Giselle Allen Doctor Artur Korn Drum Major Richard Berkeley-Steele Captain Robert Künzli Andres Stephen McClare Margret Allyson McHardy The Fool Benoît Boutet
First Workman Zdenek Plech Second Workman Peter Barrett A Soldier John Kriter

Conductor Richard Bradshaw Director Lotfi Mansouri

Reviewer J. H. Stape

Although it premiered in 1925, Berg's masterpiece Wozzeck, based on Georg Buchner's play, can still seem dauntingly "modern," both in its musical idiom and plot: insanity, emotional mayhem, prostitution, murder, and suicide are not unknown in the operatic repertoire but never elsewhere are they given such searingly realistic treatment, with music appropriate to the bleak and intense action.

The Canadian Opera Company's revival of a production first staged in 1990 is a unmitigated triumph, holding the audience relentlessly in the meshes of horror for 90 uninterrupted minutes. The cast is nigh flawless and the staging brilliant.

Not always a director of great musical insight or of subtle effects, Michael Levine gets things absolutely right here, avoiding an ingrained tendency to hitting over the top (the COC's Oedipus Rex of some seasons ago) or to abstruseness (the company's current yet-to-be-completed Ring cycle).

Rather than mere dazzlement, this staging holds together seamlessly, illuminating the composer's musical and thematic intentions, as scene change follows swiftly upon scene change so that the whole work seems to be a fast forward nightmare. Lotfi Mansouri's intelligent direction may have much to do with the success wrought by this magnificent production.

Pavlo Hunka, performing on opening night under laryngitis, was impressive for his acting, repeatedly colouring his presentation of Berg's dark vision with nuance and wholly convincing in the sense of alienation and psychosis. The star of the evening, however, was arguably the Marie of Irish soprano Giselle Allan, whose radiant voice effortlessly conveyed the lust, anxiety, fear, and maternal tenderness of a woman lost in a relationship gone awry in a society adrift. Dramatically adroit, she imbued her role with a daunting intensity.

No less effective as singer-actors were Artur Korn as crazed Doctor, Richard Berkeley-Steele as the sexy Drum Major, and Robert Künzli as the bloatedly self-important Captain, all of whom impinge upon Wozzeck as grotesque or threatening figures out of a nightmare.

The crowd scenes in the dance-hall were chilling glimpses of a dysfunctional society -- the drabbly dressed chorus crying out for a release unavailable to them. The blocking throughout heightened the sense of life as a wild and meaningless dance that relentlessly moves towards extinction. As Wozzeck slits Marie's throat and drifts into an ambiguous death in the mud (suicide or misadventure?) the dramatic values were paramount.

The final bleak scene as their feverish and weak little boy alone on the immense stage and soon to be crushed by social indifference and life's immensity was harrowing.

Ruthlessly intelligent in its musical values -- the orchestra under the Canadian Opera Company's director Richard Bradshaw performed superbly -- this evening of music drama was one to haunt the memory.

© 2006 J. H. Stape