Berg: Wozzeck

Bavarian State Opera

National Theatre, Munich, 20 July 2009 4 stars

Wozzeck Arguably the defining opera of the twentieth century, Berg's Wozzeck is far more than just a musical setting of the original Büchner play. The play itself is based on the true story of a soldier Woyzeck who, driven mad after suffering abuse from his superiors, stabs his girlfriend to death. Büchner was incensed by the injustice when the soldier was hanged for his crime but, being a trained doctor, he was also fascinated by Woyzeck the medical case. Berg's Wozzeck, however, is not driven mad by maltreatment. Instead, it allows him to see things as they really are, to penetrate through the surface bourgeois ideology and see the full terrible truth about modernity.

With his towering frame and great stage presence, you wouldn't necessarily have Michael Volle down on your list of naturals for the title role. However, director Andreas Kriegenburg is keen that Wozzeck is not seen simply as an impotent victim – as is usually the case – but as an island of strength and sanity in a decaying world. Andrea Schraad's costumes, reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton film, convey a feeling of diseased, broken-down humanity being held together by a terrifying and yet strangely beautiful technology. A repulsively obese Captain lurches around the stage on uneven crutches. Wolfgang Schmidt clearly relished making the character as disgusting as possible, deliberately allowing those high falsetto notes to grate. The Doctor, played as a techno-nerd by Clive Bayley, is strapped up in old-fashioned leg splints and a corset. Wozzeck's suffering at the hands of these decrepit monsters was unbearable to witness, Volle's hand-wringing and distressed facial expressions both contributing to the overwhelming sense of agony concentrated in that powerful bass baritone voice.

Angela Denoke's sassy Marie provided the perfect balance to Volle's Wozzeck. Marie is often played as a sweet, but put upon mother who wants to believe those bible stories she reads her son, and who just needs a bit more love and attention from her boyfriend. However, she doesn't just become the easy prey of Jürgen Müller's Drum Major, but aggressively pursues sex as a form of escapism from her situation. This harder-edged character is fleshed out in the following scene when she is admiring the earrings the Major has given her. Her vicious behaviour towards her son – attempting to scare him to sleep – is shown to be the result of another form of escapism: the bottle.

WozzeckThere are two fleeting moments of tenderness between Marie and Wozzeck, and both are affectingly staged. The first is in the third scene where Marie calls for her 'Franz' to come to her: they edge slowly toward one other across a wall. The brief time for which they hold hands is the only loving contact in the opera. The next time they assume the same position is the moment before Wozzeck slits her throat. The second, which turned out to be the most moving part of the evening, was when Wozzeck gave Marie the money he had earned shaving the Captain, collecting sticks and being experimented on by the Doctor. Representing the money is a shimmering pianissimo C major triad on three solo string instruments – an eerie sound after almost an hour of atonal harmony. Wozzeck, ashamed at the paucity of the amount, stands with his back to Marie and passes it to her without looking. She, racked with guilt over her infidelity with the Major, is nevertheless forced to take it out of necessity. After this, when he touches her it is with an unfeeling, pawing or prodding hand.

Berg's concern with the debilitating effects of poverty is one of the themes that Kriegenburg's staging foregrounds. In the outdoor scenes, there is a group of silent workers, dressed in traditional suits and caps, that hangs about at the back of the stage. Occasionally, like a zookeeper, someone comes out and throws them scraps of food, which they then tussle over like animals. As the opera progresses, these men perform various silent tasks: when he is first noticed by Marie, they are carrying the Drum Major aloft on a small stage, they also carry the stage with the musicians on their backs in the scene in the pub, and when Marie falls back dead, they are there to catch her and carry her off on a stretcher. This is all part of Wozzeck's ability to see through ideology: all our riches, all of our cultural achievements rest on the backs of the working class. The problem with this is, though, that it's too reminiscent of the Marxist theatre of Berg's time: it historicizes the issues the opera deals with instead of demonstrating how relevant they still are today.

Wozzeck'But aren't we forgetting that it's the children who are the real victims here?' a question asked in tabloid/TV journalism with mind-numbing regularity. Well, Kriegenburg certainly hasn't forgotten, and he extends the child's role so that it appears in all fifteen scenes. Played by a somewhat docile and, I suppose, sweetly innocent Aurelius Braun, through the course of the opera the child descends gradually into a kind of catatonia. In the opening scene, where Wozzeck is shaving the Captain, the boy tries to hug his father's leg, but Wozzeck keeps shaking him off. The boy does attempt to communicate, despite his silent role: he daubs single-word epithets on the walls of the house in black paint: 'Papa', 'Geld', 'Hure', but all this is unheeded by his preoccupied parents. Later he is reduced to just pacing up and down, and painting lines along the wall. Oddly, though, in the famous final scene where the child is left orphaned, uncomprehendingly having rotten cabbages thrown at him by the other kids, the normal deep sympathy one usually feels wasn't there.

Part of the reason for this was the fault of conductor Kent Nagano. It says in the score that the last chords should not slow down nor fade out – implying that Wozzeck's tragedy is set to continue in the next generation. But there was too much vibrato in the strings, adding a touch of pathos that, in this opera, only makes things less moving. This was indicative of Nagano's approach throughout: enjoying the expressive, Romantic side of Berg's scoring without realizing that sometimes a cold steel edge is more effective.

Nagano and Kriegenburg took the courageous, or perhaps foolhardy, decision to run all fifteen scenes together without a break. By the end the audience was emotionally drained by the cumulative effect of so much misery and pain, and it took a good minute or so for the applause to get going. Nagano could do with incorporating a bit more unfeeling nastiness into his reading of the score, and the production would benefit from attempting to bring Berg's hard-hitting social criticism to bear on our manifest twenty-first-century evils. But the sets, lighting and costumes were all excellent, as was the acting and singing. And once the applause did get going, it was with a genuine and justified sense of appreciation.

By Marc Brooks

Photos: 2008 production of Wozzeck at Bavarian State Opera. Photos credits: Wilfried Hoesl

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