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Alban BERG (1885-1935) Wozzeck, opera in three acts (fifteen scenes), Op.7, libretto by Alban Berg, after Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck (1925)
Christopher Maltman (Wozzeck)
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Marie)
Frank van Aken (Drum Major)
Sir Willard White (Doctor)
Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (Margret)
Chorus of Dutch National Opera, New Amsterdam Children's Choir
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
2017, Dutch National Opera and Ballet, Amsterdam NAXOS DVD 2.110582 [1:47:25]
Berg’s expressionist opera based on the gloomy play by Büchner is a twentieth century masterpiece but it remains unsettling listening and watching. The problem is not with Berg’s music, which at this date should not present particular difficulties – it is incidentally, written in free atonality and not in Berg’s version of serialism which he used for his second opera Lulu. No, the challenge is to lift the sordid story of the mentally unstable soldier Wozzeck and his unfaithful mistress Marie, with its entirely predictable ending in murder and accidental death, into something with some redemptive or transfiguring or even just faintly positive qualities. Berg’s music helps with this and so can the production.
Musically this production is excellent. The cast is nearly all first-rate. Christopher Maltman in the title role has a rich and fruity voice. He really sings the part and makes the character sympathetic, even though only on the edge of sanity. Marcel Beekman catches the nagging and taunting character of the Captain, with his harping on the need to be ‘Ein guter Mensch’ (a worthy man) to perfection. Willard White is equally convincing as the sadistic Doctor, who pays Wozzeck to be a human guinea-pig for his daft-sounding experimental diet which he hopes will make his reputation. Eva-Maria Westbroek, whom I last saw as Sieglinde in the MET Ring, has a really thought-out interpretation of Marie, who is devoted to her child, falls for the drum-major and immediately feels guilt but not enough to break off the relationship. Marie is a shallow character but this is not a shallow interpretation of her, and she draws sympathy for her brutal end. The chorus does not have a great deal to do but is confident and secure. Only Scott Wilde as First Apprentice seemed to be a bit monotonous and unvaried in his delivery. Marc Albrecht conducting is an old hand at this kind of work and you would think it was standard repertory from the way the orchestra play – perhaps it is in Amsterdam.
The staging is surprising. There is basically only one set, which has to serve both for the indoor scenes and those in the forest or the pub, and some of the same props, such as an anatomical model, remain on stage whether they are relevant or not to the scene being played. The lighting also does not help distinguish indoors and outdoors. The forest pool is evoked by a small portable aquarium which is wheeled in on a trolley. Mercifully, there are no fish in it. The costumes are twentieth century rather than nineteenth, when the original play was written and when Berg set it. I find setting operas at the time of composition rather than the period, in fact the year 1821, intended by composer and librettist – this case the same person – one of the dreariest clichés of current opera production. (It seems to go back to Patrice Chreau’s 1976 Bayreuth Ring.)
But there is more. Before the opera proper begins there is a scene lasting seven minutes involving child dancers, with a waltz and a rock number (neither by Berg). Marie’s child (unnamed), who cannot be older than three, is represented by a child actor who looks around eight years old and who turns up in far more scenes than is specified in the libretto. At the beginning of the second act he speaks a passage which appears later, in his scene with his mother. Extra characters appear in some scenes, and the entrances and exits of the characters are not always as specified in the score. In the barracks scene where the soldiers are sleeping, and Berg renders their snores, they are actually standing up in a row. In the first pub scene Micky and Minnie Mouse make an appearance at the back of the stage. Even more distracting was the presence of constant stage business in the big Mahlerian interlude between the last two scenes. This passage sums up the meaning of the opera and it is not Marc Albrecht’s fault that it lost a lot of its power through this fussiness.
The sound and picture quality are excellent and there is a useful booklet with an essay on the opera and biographies of the singers. The booklet is in English only but subtitles in five languages are available. The whole opera fits onto a single DVD.
There are several other DVDs of Wozzeck available. I remember the Abbado version being at least as well sung as this one and offering staging much more faithful to Berg’s intentions.
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