First Night: Chilly touch in theatre of cruelty

Wozzeck Philharmonia Orchestra/Dohnanyi Royal Festival Hall London
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THE FINAL scene of Alban Berg's Wozzeck is like a mighty infarction in the chronicle of 20th-century music. It would seem to be the very point at which Mahler hands over his hard-won inheritance to Berg.

Christoph von Dohnanyi's Philharmonia concert series "Mahler and Vienna: Beginnings and Endings" seemed to begin and end there on Saturday night. It was one of several moments in this expensively cast and painstakingly prepared concert performance of Berg's opera which revealed Dohnanyi's reading for what it was: a fiercely objective but ultimately heartless account of this magnificent score.

The expressionist nightmare, the eternal "Scream" of Edvard Munch's notorious painting, is inside the hapless Wozzeck's head. Berg's orchestra is a lurid canvas of insanity, hallucination, and man's inhumanity to man. Only a solo horn dares to dream.

But perhaps the most remarkable feature of Berg's awesomely complex score is that it is achieved within the disciplines of strict compositional procedures. For method inmadness, Dohnanyi is your man. A fearlessly accomplished Philharmonia Orchestra laid bare the viscera of the score with ruthless clarity.

But there's much more to Berg's (and the playwright Buchner's) theatre of cruelty: An underlying compassion which surfaces only fleetingly during the course of this bad dream, but which sublimates in that great D minor interlude.

That Dohnanyi made so little of the great crescendo leading to its point of release was to me symptomatic of an emotional and theatrical frigidity at the moment where the opposite must be true. Just as the two mighty crescendos following the death of Marie serve as stark and shocking, so must this untimely climax carry with it the entire opera's heartache. It didn't.

That burden fell to Franz Hawlata's Wozzeck, beautifully conveying the dementia which so paradoxically makes this simple man articulate. And to Deborah Polaski's Marie, so alive to the spirit and drama of the text. In Berg's gallery of grotesques, Eric Halfvarson's shaven-headed Doctor looked and sounded like his surname might be Death, while the Captain was, in Graham Clark's incisive performance, the personification of hypertension, the tessitura of the vocal line suggesting his scrawny neck stretched for Wozzeck's razor like a Ralph Steadman caricature. Now there's a thought.

Edward Seckerson