Ensemble Parallele gave a much-needed jolt to the Bay Area opera scene with its triumphant production last weekend of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (in John Rea’s chamber-opera version). It was so outstanding that if I want to bitch about something in that endearing way I have, I have to reach for the peeviest of my pet peeves, like they started late. Well, and maybe I’ll also complain that there were only two performances on one weekend, so anyone who was out of town would miss the production entirely, which is a shame since I doubt we’re going to see this brutal and beautiful masterpiece anytime soon over at the increasingly inert San Francisco Opera.
Under conductor Nicole Paiement, Artistic Director of the Ensemble, the orchestra played so wonderfully that I never really felt the music was stripped down; instead, without undue lingering over details, the shock and beauty of Berg’s score were clearly laid out for us (even though, I have to say, I’m really more of a Lulu guy). Full credit to her and to Stage Director and Concept Designer Brian Staufenbiel; I’ve never seen the complexities and ironies and even the strange absurdist humor of the work brought out so clearly. There was a simple set (Mathew Antaky did set and lighting design), two mobile half-houses that could be turned around for interior scenes, pushed together for the tavern, or moved aside for the outdoors. I don’t know exactly why, but I thought the staging would be really stripped down (I mean stripped down in a “we don’t have money” way, not in a "deliberate aesthetic choice" way), but I never had the feeling that they were skimping in their efforts to realize the work.
The set was augmented by video projections by Austin Forbord; I had read beforehand that there would be video inspired by German expressionist films, and though that’s one of my favorite film eras, I was a little concerned, as it is way too easy to go overboard with both video projections during operas and with German expressionism – all those enticing jagged shadows and intensely, even overly, dramatic gestures! But the projections were never allowed to swamp the staging. In the first scene, when Wozzeck (Bojan Knezevic) is shaving the Captain (John Duykers), the video feed is live, and looming in the back of the stage we see a close-up in silvery black-and-white of the Captain’s face as he lectures Wozzeck. The camera never leaves his face, never switches to Wozzeck, and there’s a slightly disorienting effect since the Captain’s lips are slightly behind the words we hear. And this is how the Captain appears to Wozzeck. We are immediately brought inside Wozzeck's head (the same technique – a close-up on only one speaker of the dialogue, shot live – is used in the scene with the Doctor (Philip Skinner); only those two scenes are shot live).
In other scenes the video simply shows a field, or we see the swaggering drum major (AJ Glueckert) as he appears in the longing, lonely thoughts of Marie (Patricia Green). In the murder scene, the video riverbank starts to fall in on itself (an effect that reminded me of the buildings collapsing on Emil Jannings in one of my all-time favorite films, The Last Laugh) while the moon grows larger and larger and turns redder and redder until the whole stage is bathed in red light. The second tavern scene, after the murder, is much more stylized in the Expressionist way than the first, which is before the murder; the production uses expressionism as it’s meant to be used, for strong emotional expression, and not just for decorative or period effect.
The entire cast was superb and the singing was always expressive and heartfelt. My initial thought was that Knezevic was bringing the crazy a little too soon, but then I saw that he was going back and forth from disturbed to normal (well, normal is disturbed, which is what’s going on here) from scene to scene, and his distance and strangeness help shed a sympathetic light on Marie, his poor beaten-down common-law wife who is made so happy by the gaudy earrings the Drum Major gives her as present and payment. There's a wonderful, subtle moment when Marie realizes Wozzeck has brought her to the riverbank to kill her for her infidelity, and her body slumps slightly towards his, passive and doomed. I’ve never been so touched by a Marie. Duykers and Skinner were expert at the menacing cruel comedy of the Captain and the Doctor. Just to complete the list of major roles: Andres was J Raymond Meyers, Margret was Erin Neff, the First Apprentice was John Bischoff, the Second Apprentice was Torleff Borsting, the Madman was Michael Desnoyers, and Marie’s son was Kai Nau. Consider them all gushed over by me.
My only other experience with Ensemble Parallele was their premiere of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar three years ago. Apparently they are hoping to stage an annual chamber opera, and it’s probably pretty clear by now that I’m really hoping that happens. The Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena is perfect for chamber opera (so I take back what I said earlier about the Bay Area not having a theater suitable for something like The Rape of Lucretia). Ensemble Parallele’s announced upcoming projects include a new opera from Dante de Silva on Gesualdo and a chamber version of Harbison’s Great Gatsby – I’m very eager to hear them both, but particularly the Harbison, since I saw it at the Met and found it fascinating though flawed, done in by some major miscasting (Hadley as an unmysterious Gatsby and Upshaw as Daisy; I love Upshaw, but the qualities that make her fans love her – her intelligence and adventurousness and down-to-earthness – are all wrong for Daisy, a sheltered golden daughter of privilege; it’s a tricky role to cast anyway, like Helen of Troy, since she functions as a projection, a vision that will differ with each viewer).