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Wednesday, May 09, 2018


The next Grammy-winning record I'll write about is the one for Best Opera, which went to the Houston Symphony's recording of Albert Berg's Wozzeck.

Now, when it comes to opera, I have a gaping hole in my knowledge. I've always tried to get it--I went to a performance of La Boheme at the Met and enjoyed it, but there's something forbidding about it. Maybe it's that most operas are in languages other than English, or maybe it's the complexity of the music.

So I found myself way over my head in listening to Wozzeck. This is a twentieth-century composition. Berg was part of a new wave of composers that used atonal music--that is, without a key. The cliche about it is that it can sound like a cat walking across a keyboard. The liner notes mentions that at its premiere in 1925, "A number of the press foamed with rage, noting the absence of melodies." I didn't foam with rage, but the music didn't move me or inspire me. It's not La Traviata.

The opera is based on a nineteenth-century play called Woyzeck by George Blucher. I ordered a copy of the play so I could understand the plot, but when it arrived I realized it was in German. The play was unfinished at the time of Blucher's death, and there are many different translations and adaptations. Basically, Wozzeck is a sad-sack soldier who is cuckolded by his wife. He kills her then drowns himself. He also submits to medical experiments by a sinister doctor. So it's a comedy (not).

The vocalists are all top notch, of course, led by Roman Trekel as Wozzeck and Anne Schwanewillms as his wife. I won't give up on opera, but next time I'll try something simpler, like Carmen.

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