Opera Noir: Alban Berg's 'Wozzeck'

From the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow

Wozzeck i i

hide captionEven the few light-hearted moments in Berg's opera are surrounded by darkness. The disturbed Wozzeck (Georg Nigl) has horrific visions of knives and blood, which turn out to be prophetic.

Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi Theatre
Wozzeck

Even the few light-hearted moments in Berg's opera are surrounded by darkness. The disturbed Wozzeck (Georg Nigl) has horrific visions of knives and blood, which turn out to be prophetic.

Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi Theatre

The Hit Single

The shattering dramatic landscape of Berg's opera seems an unlikely place for true tenderness. Yet one gentle moment stands out, as Marie sings her young son to sleep in the middle scene of Act One.

Marie's Lullaby

3 min 8 sec
 

The B Side

All the anguish, desperation and pure beauty of Wozzeck culminates in the powerful orchestral interlude leading to the opera's bleak, final scene.

Final Interlude

4 min 5 sec
 

It's difficult to compare Alban Berg's searing yet beautiful drama Wozzeck with just about any other opera, much less with other forms of dramatic entertainment. Yet there is one comparison that may be appropriate.

In the 1940s and '50s, a style of movie making developed that became known as film noir. It's a category that's still hard to define, even a half-century later, and has been used to describe a wide variety of films, from Sunset Boulevard and The Third Man, to more recent "neo-noirs" like David Lynch's Mullholland Drive and Roberto Rodriguez's Sin City.

The style, experts say, is heavily influenced by Expressionism, an artistic movement seen and heard in the art, literature, film and music of the first few decades of the 20th century. And while there's really no category of musical drama known as "opera noir," if there were such a designation, it would certainly apply to Berg's Wozzeck — an opera steeped in Expressionism.

Berg and his contemporaries Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern are among the best-known of the Expressionist composers, also known as the Second Viennese School. All three explored the 12-tone style of composition, and none of them has a reputation for music that's tuneful and easy to digest.

But if there's one of the three whose work has been more widely accepted by mainstream audiences than the others, it would be Berg. He mixed leading-edge musical techniques with traditional forms and tonal harmonies to create his own, highly emotive brand of expressionism. And he used it with stunning results in two operas — Wozzeck and his later drama Lulu.

Wozzeck is a rigorously structured opera, both dramatically and musically. Its three acts each have five scenes, separated by orchestral interludes, and every scene has its own, classically derived form. The second act is a kind of five-movement symphony, complete with a sonata form first movement and a scherzo with two trios. Berg also employs traditional tonality at a number of crucial moments: The climactic orchestral interlude between the final two scenes is solidly in the key of D minor. All of this, combined with a startling story based on an influential play by Georg Büchner, results in an opera that's complex, disturbing — and often deeply beautiful.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Wozzeck in a production from the historic Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The young American soprano Mardi Byers shines in the challenging role of Marie, alongside baritone Georg Nigl, whose emotional performance in the title role is a musical and dramatic tour de force.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Wozzeck'

Marie and the Drum Major i i

hide captionMarie (Mardi Byers), the mother of Wozzeck's child, takes up with the drum major (Roman Muravitsky) at the close of Act One.

Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi Theatre
Marie and the Drum Major

Marie (Mardi Byers), the mother of Wozzeck's child, takes up with the drum major (Roman Muravitsky) at the close of Act One.

Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi Theatre

Who's Who

Georg Nigl ………..…..….. Wozzeck

Mardi Byers …………….……. Marie

Maxim Pastor …………...… Captain

Pyotr Migunov …………….. Doctor

Roman Muravitsky …….. Drum Major

Fredrik Akselberg ……..….. Andres

Xenia Vyaznikova ……..……Margret

Valery Gilmanov …..… 1st Apprentice

Nikolai Kazansky …..…2nd Apprentice

Leonid Vilensky ………… Madman

Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus

Teodore Currentzis, conductor

ACT ONE begins as Wozzeck, a lowly soldier, is giving his Captain a shave. The Captain tells him to work more slowly — that a good man is never in a hurry. The captain also accuses Wozzeck of having no morals, as he has a son born out of wedlock. Wozzeck says that God will think no less of his boy for that. He also speaks of "wir arme Leut" — "we unfortunate people" — saying that it's difficult for people to be virtuous when they have no money. His comments leave the Captain befuddled.

In scene two, Wozzeck is in a field with his friend Andres, cutting sticks. Andres sings a cheery hunting song. But Wozzeck says the field is cursed — that people have seen a human head rolling on the ground there at night. Andres is unconcerned, but Wozzeck begins to seem a bit unhinged when he's frightened by the sunset — seeing it as a great fire, rising from earth into the heavens.

The next scene takes place outside the modest home of Marie, the mother of Wozzeck's child. Marie watches from her window as a military band passes by. When she admires the Drum Major, who's leading them, her friend Margret suggests that Marie has inappropriate feelings for him. Marie slams the window in her face, and sings a simple lullaby to her son. Wozzeck appears, talking wildly about a darkness that has followed him into town. Marie tries to calm him by showing him the boy, but he remains agitated, and Marie is frightened.

Scene four is in the office of the Doctor, who has been paying Wozzeck a small fee to be the subject of experiments. This week, Wozzeck is to eat nothing but beans; next week, they'll move on to mutton. The Doctor accuses Wozzeck of embarrassing behavior — coughing and spitting in the street. Wozzeck mentions his visions of darkness, and the world in flames. The doctor says Wozzeck has developed an obsession and that his own observations of it will make him famous.

The act's final scene is back outside Marie's home. The Drum Major has seen her eyeing him and comes to visit. Boasting of his accomplishments, he tries to take her in his arms. At first she resists. Then she says, "Oh well, it's all the same to me," and they enter the house together.

As ACT TWO begins, Marie is alone in her room, looking at herself in a shard of mirror. She's admiring a pair of earrings the Drum Major gave her. When her son acts up, she threatens him with scary stories about being kidnapped by gypsies. Wozzeck enters, and asks her about the earrings. Marie says she found them in the street. Wozzeck doesn't believe it, but lets the subject pass, for now. He gives her the extra money he's earned from the Captain and the Doctor, and quickly leaves.

In the next scene, the Captain runs into the Doctor on the street, and chides him for being in such a hurry. The Doctor says time is precious — he recently had a patient who took ill and died in just four weeks. This frightens the Captain, and the Doctor goads him further with a mock examination: "Fat," he says. "Thick neck. Apoplectic constitution … You may soon be paralyzed — but if you're lucky, only from the waist down."

When Wozzeck happens by, the two men make fun of him, obliquely suggesting that Marie might be carrying on behind his back. Wozzeck goes off alone, shaken and confused.

At Marie's place, Wozzeck greets her with talk of sin — telling her that she's as beautiful as sin itself. When he implies that he knows what she's been up to, Marie laughs at him. He moves toward her, but Marie says she'd rather be stabbed by a knife than have him touch her. Wozzeck leaves, dejected, mumbling that "man is an abyss" — and that he's dizzy looking into it.

Scene Four takes place in the garden of an inn. People are dancing and two apprentices sing a drunken song. One of them loudly declares that his very soul stinks of brandywine.

Wozzeck enters and sees Marie dancing with the Drum Major, who's pawing at her in the process. Wozzeck seems about to confront them when Andres lightens the mood with a cheerful song. He asks Wozzeck if he's drunk. Wozzeck says no, he can't afford it.

When the apprentices launch into another drunken ditty, a local madman approaches Wozzeck. Everyone seems happy, he says, but "I smell blood." Repeating the word "blood," Wozzeck leaves the inn, saying that everything is turning red before his eyes.

The act's final scene is in the soldiers' barracks. Sounds of sleep are all around, but Wozzeck is wide awake. He describes visions of couples dancing, and then the flash of a knife. Andres tells him to be quiet and Wozzeck begins to pray: "Lead us not into temptation."

The Drum Major then enters noisily, boasting of the beautiful new woman in his life. When Andres wants to know who she is, the Drum Major tells him to ask Wozzeck. The Drum Major offers Wozzeck a drink and when Wozzeck pretends to ignore him, the two begin to fight. Wozzeck is beaten to the ground. He lies there bleeding as the act ends, saying, "It's one thing after another."

ACT THREE opens with Marie at home, reading a bible passage about a woman who is caught in adultery and forgiven by Jesus. She starts to tell her son the sad story of a boy who had no mother or father, who was alone in the world. Tormented by guilt, she returns to the bible and reads about Mary Magdalene. In a desperate prayer, Marie begs the savior for forgiveness.

In the second scene, Wozzeck and Marie are walking on a path in the woods at dusk. Wozzeck wonders aloud how long they've been together. Three years, Marie says. Wozzeck then asks her how long she thinks it will last. She turns away and tries to leave but he kisses her, asking if she's been "good and true." Marie shivers and says there's a cold night dew falling. He says she won't be shivering by morning. Then, as Marie comments on the vivid, red moon that's rising, Wozzeck draws a knife and stabs her in the throat. After watching her die, he hurries quietly away.

Scene three is in a murky tavern. Wozzeck drunkenly approaches Marie's friend Margret, putting his hands on her and saying her body seems hot — but that she, too, will grow cold. Then Margret notices blood on Wozzeck's hand. He says he must have cut himself. But she sees blood on his sleeve, as well, and there's a commotion as others gather round to look. Wozzeck runs off, saying, "Someone will go to the devil."

Back in the woods, near a pond, Wozzeck looks for the knife he used to kill Marie. He stumbles on her body, commenting on the new, red cord around her neck. He finds the knife and throws it into the water. Frantic, and increasingly deranged, he looks at the red moon, saying the moon is bloody — that the moon will betray him. He says he needs to wash off the bloodstains, and wades into the pond. But in the moonlight the water seems red. He thinks he's washing himself with blood. Terrified, he goes further into the water, sinks beneath the surface, and drowns.

The Captain and the Doctor appear on the path, sensing that something is wrong. The Doctor listens carefully and says, "Someone is drowning." As everything goes quiet, the two quickly leave.

After an intense orchestral interlude, perhaps the opera's most famous passage, the final scene is outside Marie's house. Her son is riding a hobby horse. Off to the side, other children share the big news, saying, "Did you hear about Marie? They found her by the pond." One boy approaches Marie's son and says, "You! Your mother's dead."

Excited, the others run off down the path to see. Seeming not to understand, Marie's boy waits a moment, then follows them into the woods.

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