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Tuesday, April 17, 2007 | It was one hell of a gamble.

It was touted as the opera event of the year: Des McAnuff of La Jolla Playhouse and “Jersey Boys” fame was making his opera directorial debut with “Wozzeck.” Hardly a classical or light-hearted opera, “Wozzeck” runs just 90 minutes with no intermission. It depicts the suffering and hardships of the poor, the lonely and the downtrodden. Alban Berg’s opera is most-known for its atonal musical structure (music which avoids establishing a key — therefore sounding like a tone-deaf musician is playing) that can sound cacophonous and vocals that can grate the ears because of their unusual cadence. Producers of San Diego Opera’s version of this avant-garde opera knew it would either blow the socks off the San Diego audiences, or have them shuddering and covering their ears.

So I wasn’t surprised that when I described “Wozzeck’s” jarring music and discordant singing to a friend she asked me, ‘are you going to pan it?’ No way, and I’ll tell you why. Each sequence, each movement, each note of direction is planned so well that everything clicks into place without any rough transition.

The curtain opens. Wozzeck (German bass Franz Hawlata) absentmindedly acts as barber shaves the Captain (tenor Chris Merritt) who questions Wozzeck’s morals while berating him for fathering a child out of wedlock. Chris Merritt perfectly portrays Captain who looks down on Wozzeck.

Anyone, no matter how prepared, who hasn’t heard the music/vocals of “Wozzeck” will be given pause. There’s no way to adequately explain the singing — it sounds off-key, but it’s not. I wondered if my ear would become accustomed to the singing. It did.

Driven and intense, “Wozzeck” feels more like a cinematic psychological thriller with dark sets and actual black-and-white video segments (designed by Dustin O’Neill) used as transitions between scenes. And like a thriller, “Wozzeck” begins slowly and builds to frenzy.

Wozzeck’s behavior becomes increasingly sporadic: He sings with wide-eyed terror of frightening visions. Hawlata convincingly portrays a man ambushed by madness, physically jerking and writhing on-stage. It’s so intense it’s like watching someone suffocate in front of you.

Designed by Robert Brill (in his San Diego Opera debut) the set mainly consists of a round, multi-tiered turntable configuration. Shaped like a funnel, the entire deck structure holds two turntables that rotate independently of each other. Parcels of the bottom level are used for interiors: a bar, Marie’s house, the Captain’s quarters. It’s an enormous, hulking structure that functionally creates a visual that reflects the downward spiral of Wozzeck.

Sets and psychologies aside, it wasn’t until the third scene that I found myself settling in and able to listen to the music underneath the singing. Much of that was due to the irresistible Marie, soprano Nina Warren who stole her scenes with her rich voice.

The mother of Wozzeck’s child, Marie laments her lonesome life. She waits for Wozzeck to bring her money and when he does, he sings of frightening hallucinations. Wozzeck earns extra money surrendering himself for medical experiments. Bass Dean Peterson fiendishly sings the role of the science-loving Doctor with technique and wonderful clarity. The Doctor despises humanity; although Peterson doesn’t actually do it, you sense that the Doctor rubs his hands together as he sings of becoming rich and immortal.

Hawlata’s Wozzeck spins and hurtles through the scenes, eventually stumbling into the information that will sink him: The knowledge of Marie’s affair with the Drum Major (the always entertaining Jay Hunter Morris, seen before at SDO.)

From that moment on, Wozzeck fixates on Marie while spinning more and more out of control in body and mind. The pace quickens, the music seems to roll like waves of anxiety.

Stephen Terry’s phenomenal lighting effectively adds to each and every moment. A round wheel of light moves and turns over the center of the scenery. The Plexiglas areas are highlighted by different lights and a scene with a pool of water dazzles the eyes in the midst of Wozzeck’s shocking behavior.

Visually arresting and stunning, this is the kind of opera that must be seen staged. And as I said, it was one hell of a gamble. I heard people sigh. I noticed people fidgeting in their seats and I wondered if they were paying attention to all of the detail.

I admit it, I didn’t care for the cadence or the tone of the singing at first. But I appreciated the singers’ voices completely — particularly, Marie, Wozzeck and the Drum Major.

Other standouts include Scott Sikon and Daniel Hoy as drunks and the role of Margret sung by Susana Poretsky.

The story was engrossing and the more I listened, the more intricacies I heard. I found my ears adjusting. I kept thinking this: The worst thing would be if someone wouldn’t let themselves get past the atonality of the music.

Watching a man go slowly mad is one thing. But the unbearable intensity of the final scenes left me speechless. Evidently I wasn’t the only one: The audience gave a standing ovation and an extended curtain call.

That gamble paid off in spades.

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