People usually recommend La bohème or Madama Butterfly as "good first operas." I donít buy it. Wozzeck gets my vote as the opera most likely to draw in those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with what often seems like the most elitist of musical genres. Its music may be complex and difficult at first hearing, but it forms the perfect counterpart to Georg Büchnerís expressionist play. The music Berg wrote crosses all musical boundaries ó tonal, atonal, formal, lyrical ó to present a distorted version of the inhumane world that drives the poor title soldier to insanity and murder. Itís the earthy realism of both music and libretto that makes Wozzeck likely to grab the attention of the uninitiated.
This is also a difficult opera to perform, and this live recording from Naxos is a good effort that doesnít quite succeed. The two principals, Carl Johann Falkman as Wozzeck and Katarina Dalayman as his girlfriend, Marie, sing well but come off as cardboard figures rather than the grotesque yet full-fledged characters they are. The orchestra plays well enough, but Segerstamís conducting is careful rather than committed, and I sense that heís too nervous to let go and give the music the passion it so desperately needs. The lack of a libretto doesnít help ó in this opera you really need to know the story.
And the competition is pretty stiff. Claudio Abbadoís live DGG recording from the Vienna State Opera is both beautifully played and sung and terrifyingly intense. Itís the modern critical benchmark and probably will be for some time. Although Naxosís budget price may look inviting, this is one case where the full-price option is really worth it.