A 'Wozzeck' That Makes Your Skin Crawl
Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" remains one of the most harrowing musical accounts of human corruption and psychological illness at the hands of an exploitative society.
It is no wonder that the opera's world premiere in 1925 at Berlin's Deutsche Staatsoper (now the Staatsoper unter den Linden) ignited public skirmishes between supporters and dissidents of the atonal work and strongly divided the local press.
Even Berg's teacher, the progressively-minded Arnold Schönberg, considered the story about a mentally-deranged former solider unsuitable for an opera. Yet it became the first great success of his protégé, immediately enjoying performances throughout Europe. Today, it is considered one of the most important operas of the 20th century.
Berg fashioned his own libretto out of an incomplete play by the doctor and poet Georg Büchner about Johann Christian Woyzeck, who stabbed his mistress, in what was deemed in the early 19th century a result of jealous rage, and was sentenced to death.
The Leipzig-born Woyzeck, slightly misspelled as "Wozzeck" when Büchner's fragments were printed in 1879, left behind medical records indicating symptoms of what we might today recognize as schizophrenia.
In Berg's opera, the score creates a raw, expressionist landscape that, at the time, represented a bold contrast with the methodical twelve-tone technique of Schönberg. Violence and lust interpenetrate with unsettling immediacy, exposing humanity at its most twisted and destructive through strident dissonances and swirling melodic development.
Andrea Breth's new staging for the Staatsoper unter den Linden, which premiered in April of this year and returned for three more performances last month, delves fearlessly into the work's brutal, lascivious undercurrents to mostly powerful effect.
As seen on October 30, a geometrically-shaped cell lined by thin wooden panels serves as the framework for everything from the opening scene in which Wozzeck shaves the Captainto the modest quarters of Marie, mother of Wozzeck's son, and eventually reveals itself part of a carousel that spins as the title character loses control. The final scenes take place against a backdrop of misty darkness.
Earlier in the opera, when the ambitious Doctor queries the mentally-ill Wozzeck in his study as he develops a theory that he believes will make him go down in history, he ladles bright green soup over the shivering patient's head, bringing the abuse into unmistakable relief. Marie's lover, the Drum Major, dons a skin-colored top bulging with the muscles of a body builder and copulates violently with Marie in front of her son.
Breth also stripped the character Marie of the humble piety which she traditionally exhibits in scenes alone with her son. In an opera that is never free of contradictions, this production allows lust to dominate other, equally important psychological impulses.
As the title character, Georg Nigl gave a convincing performance that nevertheless could have been fleshed out further both musically and dramatically. The character's internal complexity was first revealed in the penultimate scene when he confronts having killed Marie; his presence was often excessively cold and detached in passages during which he should have overwhelmed the stage.
Nadja Michael played the role of Marie with carefree but vicious seductive wiles, her steely soprano cutting easily through the orchestra. John Daszak was a slimy, virile Drum Major, and Pavlo Hunka brought true sadism to the role of the Doctor.
Florian Hoffmann rounded out the cast with poise as Wozzeck's friend, Andres, and Fabian Sturm's flaxen-blond, innocent presence as Maria's son proved thoroughly distressing, particularly in the final scene when he hops off on his hobby-horse, either immune to the cruel world around him or destined to fulfill his father's fate.
As the Captain, the tenor Graham Clark was the stand-out of the evening, sculpting every line with dramatic verve and unwaveringly solid vocal production.
Music Director Daniel Barenboim led the Staatskapelle in a lush, deeply probing performance that at times emphasized expressivity over technical perfection—short horn solos in the opening act emerged a bit roughly—but the overall effect served to consume the listener with a nightmarish sense of imminent breakdown.
As the orchestra painted bold colors of fraying emotion and disintegrating musical forms, Berg's score called the very foundations of society into question.