Two masterworks from the years between the wars in a recordi
Craig Matteson | Ann Arbor, MI | 10/16/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I remember when Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg were spoken of as the New Viennese School and compared to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Seriously. From our present standpoint, it is impossible to understand how much influence these three composers had in the mid-twentieth century. These two operas continue to be performed and through them Berg has become the most widely remembered of the three.
Scholars have analyzed these works extremely closely and have discovered all kinds of symbolic patterns in the notes. For example, the music occurring around Marie as she dies seems rather chaotic, yet one scholar has shown that the music consists of ten fragments of music heard from and around her earlier in the opera. So, her life is passing before her as she dies.
There is always a debate about how much of this deep meaning one can actually hear and it does vary for each listener. This kind of discussion goes on in all the arts, but is particularly so in music because it is the most abstract of the arts. How abstract and how removed from the surface can any "meaning" be and still be heard? This was a discussion we had many times in music school and I have met no more than a very few who convinced me they could actually hear this deeply (and this is more than recognizing a given row or its transformation or hearing the most fleeting tonalities in atonal works).
For me, just as some of the ultra late romantic become somewhat over composed with a level of detail that seems to be there for its own sake, some of this minutiae is like going to a restaurant for a meal and being given an essay about a photograph of a painting of a pork chop. It may be interesting, informative, and even beautiful, but you still leave hungry.
"Wozzeck" and "Lulu" are powerful and affecting works. They do sound much more like highly chromatic, but tonal works than the abstractions of Webern. "Lulu" is the more severe and, well, bleak of the two. I have heard more than a few praise these works for telling the truth about human life and getting to the true center of the human heart. To me, they seem more like artworks that were above all anti-bourgeois and seem proud of that stance. They seem to invoke not only the materialist views of the world of Marx, but also of Freud, and other now long forgotten apostles of deterministic thought. Is it possible to still see these works eighty years on as modern? They are as much prisoners of their time as are any other opera and less transcendent than I expect great works of art to be.
Franz Wozzeck is a powerless man who has a child out of wedlock with a woman named Marie. He subjects himself to crackpot scientific experiments with a Doctor for a bit of extra money for Marie and their son. Marie feels oppressed by the social stigma of being an unwed mother, but also has eyes for other men. She is particularly attracted to a Drum Major who looks so wonderfully masculine, but is really a mere surface of a person. She has an affair with the Drum Major, which Wozzeck discovers. Since Wozzeck is already teetering on the edge of sanity from his impotence and the experiments, he falls off and stabs Marie after she tells him that she would rather be stabbed than beaten. He leaves her body and tosses the knife in a pond. Later, crazed even more deeply by guilt, he goes into the pond after the knife and drowns. The last moment of the play involves Marie's and Wozzeck's orphan at play and running off the stage oblivious that he is alone in the world.
So, is this the true heart of us all? Is that last moment poignant, sharp irony on the human condition, or mere kitsch? I mean, dealing with the world view of this drama might benefit from as much detachment and irony as you can bring to it.
"Lulu" is even harsher. She is married to a professor of medicine who has a heart attack when he sees her with a painter he has commissioned to paint her portrait. She marries the painter at the urging of another doctor, who is engaged to another, with whom Lulu has had a long term love affair (such as love is in this work). Finally, the doctor understands that the painter really is blind to Lulu's true nature and tells him of her past. He kills himself. Under threat the doctor marries Lulu. She then takes up with a Countess who is enamored of her. Lulu ends up killing him with a revolver he has given her. She is arrested and sentenced to prison.
However, the countess arranges to take her place in prison to aid Lulu's escape. The Countess, the doctor's son, and an athlete help her escape abroad. Lulu then ends up with a wealthy man who ends up being a pimp and sells her to Cairo.
While the opera was incomplete at Berg's early death at fifty, the outline and sketch let us know that she is living in London with the doctor's son and the athlete. When the Countess arrives without money, Lulu is reduced to becoming a streetwalker. She goes through a series of clients who are the musical reincarnations of her various husbands. One of them kills the doctor's son, and the last kills both Lulu and the Countess, since he is Jack the Ripper (!).
The music is powerful and worth knowing because it is so personal to Berg and works its magic quite well. However, I have been at a symphonic concert when the Lulu Suite has been played and seem people get up and leave because they find it so harsh and intense.
Berg was indeed a major composer of the twentieth century. He cannot be merely dismissed. If you want to understand the serious art of that century you must come to terms with these works. You don't have to love them, but you cheat yourself if you don't know them at least a bit. Certainly, the morality of these operas, shocking in their time, is roughly equal to the "normal" behavior in any two episodes of "Friends" and "Law and Order". So, it must be the music that continues to affect people so strongly.
These recordings by Karl Böhm are masterfully done with great sound and solid singing. Some would prefer a different style of Sprechstimme (the half-singing) done here, but I find it appropriately chilling with the singing voice sliding around above the simultaneously sounding singing voice. I have no idea how it is done, but it sounds wonderfully insane."
A classic Wozzeck/An outdated Lulu
Craig Matteson | 05/26/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I received the LPs of both of these recordings in 1973 or 1974 for my birthday (I was 13 or 14 at the time), and I grew up loving them dearly (if can "love" such works). To this day, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will always be Wozzeck Gerhard Stolze will always be the Captain as far as I'm concerned. Unfortunately, the Lulu recording has been superseded by versions with Cerha's completion of the 3rd act (the best of which remains Boulez's classic 1979 [?] recording). But the entire set is worth it to get this classic Wozzeck."
Classic Wozzeck from 60s
clementi33 | Broward County, FL | 06/10/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I had this recording of Berg's "Wozzeck" in the 1960s. I think I was 14. I remember the performance as being one of the greatest I'd ever heard (of anything). I'd rank it with Furtwangler's "Tristan" (which knocked me out, also!) The singing of Evelyn Lear and Fischer-Deskau is magnificent; they have real chemistry, also, something rare in opera. A cast and performance made in heaven. Ranks with the Boulez version."
Opera music has become something new on the stage
Jacques COULARDEAU | OLLIERGUES France | 01/16/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This opera has become mythic in the world of the opera because it deals with a subject that is outrageous and frankly immoral. It starts like a circus with the presentation of the menagerie by a master of ceremonies, the most beastlike beast being the woman, Lulu of course. This woman is a femme fatale so common in the clichés of the Belle Epoque from the Eiffel Tower to just before the Black Friday. She is an easy woman, not really a prostitute, at least at the beginning. A woman who wants to be free and finds her freedom in the love, meaning sex of course and derangement of the mind, she inspires in men around her and she has no limits, no sense either. She is absolutely crazy in her hunger for victims falling to her sex appeal. Even a Prince is caught but she cannot choose and runs away to one more and one more and one more. Some actually die along the way and she becomes the beast to be hunted and tracked down. The police is coming. She is helped out and suggested to disappear in Egypt or locked up in a house for the sole pleasure of one man who would cover the trip or pay for the refuge. She refuses in the name of her freedom in a way. Then we follow her descent into hell that is represented by the last three men she will get. A dealer in religious goods that has lost God. A black man clearly called a N**** (sorry for the word but such characters were common in European culture in that period due to the colonialization of Africa and the still pending experience of nazi racism) in the libretto and the opera, and finally the anachronism of all centuries, Jack the Ripper who will of course rip her up and finish her up forever. But what is most interesting in this opera is the complete transformation of the role of music. A turnaround seems to have taken place in the music as well as in the opera in these 1930s. The music is no longer a "decoration", a beautiful virtuosity, which it became at the end of the Middle Ages and with the Renaissance. It does not go back to the religious finality it had before of expressing the divine beauty of God's creation and God's teaching or message. But it is not either any more some entertaining element that had to please the senses as represented in the evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. It has become part of the plot and the libretto. An opera is all sensory because it is synesthetic but this synesthesia is expressed by the merging of the various levels of the opera: the music, the singing, the language, the meaning, the plot, and of course the stage production. Music is not there to embellish the scene, or to enable the singers to glow and shine. The music builds the density of the plot, of the opera. The "instrumental and vocal" music is only part of the vast all-mediatic and all sensory music of a modern opera from plot to stage. The end comes from Lulu's own hands. Lulu introduces Jack the Ripper as her latest street conquest and she negotiates her deal or trick with him but she is a novice and Jack is actually paid by her for the business that is in no way shady at this moment but a pure suicide or execution. A complete reversal. She takes him to the bedroom. The Countess then sings the dirge that announces Lulu's death that comes after her four "nein" and her death-cry. Jack comes out and washes his hands, like Pilate in another situation. The Countess closes the story with a call to Lulu the angel, which reminds us of her commitment just before Lulu's death to the rights of women. This opera then becomes an archetype by this very story. Aren't women who want to be free reduced to prostitution and death? Is the future of women's rights in the fake freedom these prostitutes represent? Is the end always death in the hands of some perverse sex addict? Can such a woman only bring death and ruin to the men who love her? Can she only satisfy murderers like Jack the Ripper? And the music builds the whole story. The contradictory tendencies, interpretations, the play in the play. What we see - voyeurs that we are - is not what it means. Life is a stage on which human beings strut and play their parts. But music on the stage turns the actors into actors of themselves, twofold, double, dual actors or marionettes that are playing a mental play inside the superficial visible play, and that mental play is revealed by the music and the singing. The music reveals the second depth of the play.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines "
Boehm's Wozzeck is easy on the ears...
E. Lyons | Ann Arbor, MI | 12/13/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This review applies to Wozzeck only. The Lulu recording is okay only...missing the Cerha third act (which hadn't been written yet) and with a soprano who cannot seem to manage the cruel role...
Now to Wozzeck: Boehm conducts everything as if it were Strauss (whether it is Wagner, Mozart, whatever): lush, a sort of "dancing" feel...sweetness, etc... He even makes Wozzeck, a violently atonal anguish-fest, sound mellow to my ears (at least as much as is possible with this opera) and really, really beautiful, I can't stop listening to this recording. Really accessible if you have had trouble appreciating Wozzeck in the past. The singers are lighter voiced Mozartean and Straussian singers as well...Lear doesn't quite have the heft that Maries usually have, but she is more detailed and lyrical than most...FiDi is also a light voiced and refined Wozzeck...too refined in some ways. He sounds really intelligent and ironic even in the first scene--Wozzeck is supposed to be a bit of a lump. But all the singers have exceptionally clear diction in this version...unusual for this difficult music that stretches the limits of a singers vocal range. You can really hear every word. The sound is excellent...detailed and full, better than a lot of digital recordings. I recommend this Wozzeck."