Runnicles Brings Out Details of Wozzeck’s Kaleidoscopic Score

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Berg,:Wozzeck (semi-staged performance): Soloists, Choristers of St Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Edinburgh; BBC Singers, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Donald Runnicles (conductor), Glasgow City Halls, 23.10.2014 (SRT)


Wozzeck – Thomas J Mayer
Captain – Tom Randle
Andres – Michael Pflumm
Marie – Elena Zhidkova
Margret – Jennifer Johnston
Doctor – Nathan Berg
Drum Major – Thomas Blondelle
Kenneth Richardson (director)

After their majestic Tristan Project in the 2012-13 season, not to mention their still-talked-about concert performance of Les Troyens in the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, Runnicles and the BBC SSO proved that they have a strong pedigree when it comes to opera in concert, and so it proved tonight.  Here, though, we were treated to a semi-staging: no specific costumes, but a few props and some sensitive lighting, as well as some moving around on a limited stage.  It was subtle but effective and, with the aid of a supertitle screen, helped to bring Berg’s drama to life.

Standing in for a sadly indisposed Roman Trekel, Thomas J Mayer cut a dark, doom-laden figure as the eponymous anti-hero.  Heavy and dark of voice, he was powerfully strong in both the sung lines and, importantly, the frequent spoken passages.  He was matched, and in some cases bettered, by a strident, compelling Marie in Elena Zhidkova, who threw herself into the role more physically than any of her colleagues.  Her impassioned tone encapsulated Marie’s sexual (and financial) frustration very convincingly, and she was especially good in displaying the character’s remorse at the start of the third act.  Tom Randle and Nathan Berg threw themselves with vigour into the mock-serious parts of the Captain and the Doctor, full of distinctive vocal colour and dramatic presence, as was Thomas Blondelle’s Drum Major, who combined just the right amount of Heldentenor swagger and strutting-peacock absurdity.  The smaller roles were very well taken, even down to the splendid Apprentices in the tavern scene, and the brief contributions from the choruses were very successful.

The greatest thing about the experience, though, was having the orchestra unleashed from the pit.  I was lucky enough to hear Wozzeck in Vienna a few years ago, but even there the clarity of the orchestral sound is, to some extent, compromised by stashing them beneath the stage.  Here, though, every detail of Berg’s kaleidoscopic score was on display for all to hear, resonating unhindered in the wonderful acoustic of Glasgow City Halls, and what riches they are.  Brilliantly played it was, too, the highlights being the velvety richness of the string sound and a sheen on the brass sound that was, in places, stunning.  Holding it all together, as is so often the case, was Runnicles’ galvanising presence on the podium.  His acres of experience in the opera house was always going to bring the drama to life, and this he did triumphantly.  However, it was his direction of the orchestral interludes that will stick with me the most, most impressively in the “symphony” of the second act.  The invention-and-fugue, and the subsequent Largo, stirred my heart every bit as much as the unfolding drama.

Simon Thompson

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