Notes and Editorial Reviews
Many operas, tragic in nature, leave an audience deeply affected. But Wozzeck holds a special place: its "man's inhumanity to man" and "society and the system will destroy you" messages go straight to the heart and leave us feeling dejected.
The recently-released 1970 film of the opera from Hamburg by Rolf Liebermann perfectly captured the work's bleakness and nihilism, and I suspect that for sheer atmosphere and honesty to the text it never will be bettered. But for an almost unbearable, ghastly view of life, madness, and uncaring, this present production, from the stage of Barcelona's Teatre del Liceu--directed by bad-boy Calixto Bieito--will hereafter be the one to beat.
This isn't one of Bieito's juvenile-delinquent ravings like his Ballo with the conspirators on toilets; rather, he just takes a life-deadening score and plot and degrades the characters even further by placing them in a sunless underground world of the future. The life-is-pointless theme remains, but now life is made up not only of heartlessness, but filth and human innards, no natural light, and necrophilia. It's amazing that the audience doesn't go crazy the way Wozzeck does; indeed, near the opera's close, naked cast members, covered in God-knows-what sort of excremental grime, walk into the audience, zombie-like.
We are, I believe, in an oil refinery or petro-chemical plant (Wozzeck is no longer a soldier, just a lowly employee with the captain as Foreman), with acres of twisting pipes looking for all the world like the intestines the doctor rips out of the dead bodies he then cuddles up to. Wozzeck and Marie live in a fluorescently illuminated box with a patch of green shrubbery that Wozzeck tends until it, too, gets destroyed and leaves the scene lifeless. The Drum Major is a local entertainer dressed as either an Elvis- or Elton John-impersonator that Marie sees as an alternative to the dreary slime around her; her child, invariably in a fetal position (though he's big enough to be 10 years old) or on his omnipresent hobby horse, has open sores, is bald, and must breathe through an oxygen mask. (Others in the cast are similarly afflicted.)
Pianos, Marie and Wozzeck's living quarters, other spaces, descend into the playing area in front of the piping; an area of the stage will be illuminated to represent, say, the tavern, while the remainder goes dark. The scenes in the tavern are wild, the Idiot deformed and screaming, with television director Pietro D'Agostino's close-ups horrendous. The turning point comes in the third scene of the second act (although the opera is performed uninterrupted, in one act) when the Doctor, Captain, and Wozzeck meet on the street. The Captain dances insanely as the Doctor does sexual push-ups on the dead body of a woman he has carried onto the scene. Wozzeck, thoroughly confused and trying to get away from them, goes mad. He seems suddenly to realize that the only way to conform is to be as lunatic as they are; his murder of Marie, as they sit on a pipe in a world without a moon, is a thing to do and seems undriven by passion. He shoves her into a pipe drain from which dirty water has been spewing and climbs in there himself in the opera's penultimate scene.
We must be grateful that Sebastian Weigle, the Liceu's music director, leads a reading of the score that is an antidote to the filth in front of him. Weigle takes every opportunity to express Berg's lyricism rather than his harshness. (I was reminded of Richard Strauss' admonition to the orchestra at the premiere of Elektra to play softly because the music on the page was already so loud.) One of the production's real mistakes is Bieito's decision to keep the stage lit and the action going during Berg's all-important orchestral interludes. Berg's transitions are descriptive enough and need no distractions; thanks to Weigle and his orchestra they almost have their full effect. The overwhelming interlude before the opera's last scene is beautifully played; Bieito's intrusions upon it scarcely matter. And there are moments of such tenderness between Marie and her child that humanity does creep through. In addition, Weigle's cast never overplays the Sprechgesang; there is always "gesang" present with Wozzeck and Marie, so we can continue to feel what softness has been left them. The orchestra's control of dynamics, from Berg's pppppp to fffff, can take your breath away.
The cast is remarkable. Franz Hawlata, all-too-human as Wozzeck, has a fine baritone, his pitched speaking as impressive as his more melodic work. He roams the last third of the opera filthy and shirtless, looking like someone on a terrible precipice, which is just what he is. He never breaks character. Angela Denoke, in red overalls like the other workers, has the full compass of the role of Marie both vocally and dramatically--so much a victim, so uncomprehending of what is going on around her, wanting just a bit more out of life. Hubert Delamboye's Captain is terrifying, his falsetto like a train whistle. Johann Tilli's Doctor is not someone you'd want to meet on a dark street; his cannibalism seems the least of his issues. David Kuebler as Andres sings stentorianly and with misguided passion; Reiner Goldberg's Drum Major is glitter and no-substance, sort of an even-dumber and more treacherous Siegfried. And once Steven Cole's Fool opens his mouth and starts wailing, there's no turning back.
My first choice of video Wozzecks remains the 1971 film; this version is startling in its unpleasantness, and as such becomes a work of art, albeit a work hard to come to terms with. Perhaps it's a misreading--maybe Bieito is telling us that our environment can make us insane, and that isn't quite Berg's point. But it is ferocious in its persuasiveness, the opera is superbly served musically, and you won't forget it.
FORMAT: All Formats
REGIONS: All Regions
PICTURE FORMAT: 16:9
LENGTH: 129 Mins
SOUND: DTS 5.0 SURROUND/ LPCM STEREO
NO OF DISCS: 1
Wozzeck: Franz Hawlata
Marie: Angela Denoke
Drum Major: Reiner Goldberg
Margret: Vivian Tierney
Doctor: Johann Tilli
Captain: Hubert Delamboye
Andres: David Kuebler
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu
Vivaldi Chorus – IPSI – Petits Cantors de Catalunya
Musical Director: Sebastian Weigle
Stage Director: Calixto Bieito
Documentary, including interviews with Sebastian Weigle & Calixto Bieito
Works on This Recording
Wozzeck, Op. 7 by Alban Berg
David Kuebler (Tenor),
Angela Denoke (Soprano),
Vivian Tierney (Soprano),
Franz Hawlata (Bass),
Johann Tilli (Bass),
Hubert Delamboye (Tenor)
Gran Teatre del Liceu
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1917-1922; Austria
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