Calixto Bieito's production of Berg's Wozzeck is challenging, although not for the reasons which I expect he anticipated. The naked cadavers, simulated necrophilia, blood, filth, full-frontal nudity, mindless cruelty and eviscerated flesh all test one's reactionary instincts to the hilt, but simultaneously force the viewer to look beyond these reactions to try and ascertain precisely why this is a completely inadequate and misled reproduction of one of the greatest works of the twentieth-century. In other words, it begs not the response 'this is bad,' but the question, 'why is this so bad?'
First, Bieito's choice of setting not only doesn't make a great deal of sense, it threatens the very meaning of the original work. The curtain rises on a sprawling mass of pipes and tubes, fluorescent strip lights, orange boiler suits, oxygen masks, hanging girders and other – similarly trite – symbols of dystopic isolation. At first, the conceit behind this setting is thoroughly occult. It is only later that we realise that it has been chosen for two main reasons – first, to mirror the isolation of Wozzeck, and his contemporaries, and second, so that Bieito's cast can carry out cruel and vicious acts for no apparent reason. One problem with this setting, then, is that it renders Wozzeck's psychological state easily comparable to that of the other characters negating any sense in which he is an interesting or special case. Another is that it makes a mockery of most of the other elements of the plot itself. Why is there an onstage band of late nineteenth-century Austrians in the twisted and glowing rubble of Western civilisation? Why does Andre sing a hunting song about forests, and Marie a tune about goblins?
Allowing, for one moment, that the testosterone-saturated good-looks of the drum major can be feasibly decanted into the 'rock star' form of the Elton John lookalike who floats over the first act like a sorry-looking fighter pilot, what place rock stars in this nuclear winter? The problems with plot transference aren't only on this local level, of course. Negating the pastoral from Wozzeck is to eviscerate a work which relies on rural life not only for what Verdi called 'tinta', but also in order to heighten the sense in which Wozzeck is alienated from the natural world around him. Bieito realises this, of course, when he attempts to recapture the pastoral by filling his stage with wooden rocking horses decked out in fairy lights. Try as he might, the rural symbolism of Berg's work is too integral to its meaning to be easily abandoned, and Bieito resorts to the inexplicable – children's toys in a lifeless hell – to try to help him convey that symbolism. Unfortunately, it's too little too late.
The inadequacy of Bieito's choice of setting is further exemplified by the resulting hollowing-out of the opera's meaning. For Bieito, Wozzeck is clearly a tale about capitalist and rational exploitation of the disenfranchised individual. Hence, his stage is full of boiler-suited slaves working for no other reason than that they are ordered to by the captain, and disease-ridden cadavers whose death is as meaningless as the results which the Doctor who experiments on them will obtain from their bodies. There are two obvious reasons that this interpretation of the story is overly simplistic. The first, as we have already seen, is that it removes any sense of specificity which Wozzeck might otherwise possess – why do we care about him, and not any of the other workers who pound away on stage? The second is that it undermines so many of the other dynamics which make Wozzeck one of the most complex and fascinating works of the Modernist era, if not the twentieth-century.
The first notable theme which is undermined by Bieito's reading is that of religion and its role in the formation of identity – hence, Marie's bible reading scene, although beautifully sung is utterly nonsensical. The second is the broader theme of alienation in general. Hence, for Theodor Adorno, at least, Wozzeck is a work which questions how it is possible to be at all. As Wozzeck moans in the second scene, 'Everything is hollow. A bottomless pit.' This interpretation is borne out by the fact that Berg's score refuses to beautify or laud the music of the poor and the rural. For Berg, the relationships of both rich and poor are just as alienated and 'hollow' as each other. Berg's, then, is a far more complex work than Bieito gives it credit for, the latter preferring to remain pondering the simple question of whether or not capitalism is fair on the worker – it isn't – rather than engaging with the far more interesting question of what it is like to be in a world in which capitalism, religion, poverty, identity, sex, love and madness coexist.
Another pressing failure of Bieito's adaptation lies in its refusal to commit to the world of sex and violence for which it has become famous. It seems that the viewer can side with one of two opinions. On the one hand, he can decide that the violence and nudity are internally coherent and necessary for the portrayal of the shocking excesses of unchecked capitalism. On the other, he can conclude that the violence is unprovoked by any internal plot element and is simply 'unnecessary.' However, as modern listeners, we have to allow that what seems 'unnecessary' is, in reality, necessary, if only to do nothing other than to shock á la early twentieth-century modernism.
The problem with Bieito's adaptation, then, is that either way, the listener is still left wanting more, not less. If the violence of the capitalistic world should be fully portrayed, why does the Doctor only mime sex with one of his female cadavers, only subtlely examine her uterus with his fingers? On the other hand, since the 'shock' of the unnecessary has been firmly institutionalised over the past 80 years, culminating (thus far) in blockbuster torture porn, why is Marie's death such a massive anti-climax? Why doesn't her blood fly across stage as Wozzeck slits her throat, rather than spot like the smallest of shaving cuts? Either way, why don't the Drum Major and Marie have sex on stage, why do the cadavers have no genitals, why do we never see a dissection? The answer would seem to be that the violence, whether we view it as internally coherent or shockingly incoherent, has no meaningful bearing on the performance of the work itself. In other words, one actually needs to listen through it in order to approach the score. This is surely the definition of a bad adaptation.
No singer, actor, orchestra or conductor can save this adaptation. That said, it does feature some excellent performances. Despite their necessarily one-sided approaches, Franz Hawlata is a solid and quizzical Wozzeck whose madness always errs on the side of the profound, while Angela Denoke is strong. She is clearly an excellent singer, but it concerns me that she is too headstrong, sexual and self-assured to do justice to the complexities of Marie's character. The supporting cast are similarly firm, though in no ways exceptional. The Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu are probably the most notable feature of the performance, with the dark hues of the score bought out vividly by Sebastian Weigle's purposeful hand. However, most of the traditionally Austrian, and nearly all of the Bergian Viennese, colours are lost next to the more broadly modernistic elements of the score which Weigle has chosen to emphasise over their counterparts. Yet again, another element of Berg's subtlety is sacrificed to a monotone reading of a complex work.
Thus, the challenge of Bieito's work is not to keep down one's dinner while watching it. Nor is it to try and understand what is going on in his naïve, simplistic, monothematic and thoroughly uninformed production of a truly great work. It is to focus one's mind on identifying precisely why this adaptation really is one of the worst one has ever seen, without at the same time lapsing into reactionary rhetoric. Once this is done, however, one is left wondering why one bothered.