Wozzeck is a nasty, brutal, and short opera. Producing it requires balancing the human and the inhuman, where a murderer is maybe the most sympathetic figure (unless you’re counting the little kid). Andreas Kriegenburg’s acclaimed Bayerische Staatsoper production—it’s what got him the Ring job—does this expertly, and more, its characters splashing around in ankle-deep water with no sign of relief.
While putting on a single performance of Wozzeck for a festival is unusual (it not being known as an audience-pleasing star vehicle that is easy to put together without much rehearsal), when you can get Waltraud Meier and Simon Keenlyside to do it, you probably should, and the Munich audience seemed to like it as much as I did.
Berg, Wozzeck. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/22/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Lothar Koenigs
Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Chor Sören Eckhoff
Dramaturgie Miron Hakenbeck
Kinderchor Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Wozzeck Simon Keenlyside
Tambourmajor Roman Sadnik
Andres Kevin Conners
Hauptmann Wolfgang Schmidt
Doktor Clive Bayley
1. Handwerksbursche Christoph Stephinger
2. Handwerksbursche Francesco Petrozzi
Der Narr Kenneth Roberson
Marie Waltraud Meier
Margret Heike Grötzinger
Note: the photos show two previous casts in this production. Waltraud Meier is in some of the pictures (the other Marie is Michaela Schuster), the Wozzecks are Michael Volle and Georg Nigl.
This production is, like the Ring, deceptively simple and never strays too far from convention, and yet its subtle invention is quietly amazing. Much more than the Ring it creates a concentrated visual language and world for the work. From the opening projection of AKT 1, the guiding spirit is Brecht. The setting is vague, and doesn’t really matter. A enormous, dingy cement cube hovers over a stage filled with water. Some of the action takes place in this box, some in the water. The box itself moves upstage and down seemingly of its own accord. Wozzeck and Marie and their son are relatively normal-looking people, everyone else is a grotesque, white-faced caricature out of Georg Grosz. The Captain is disgustingly fat and naked while the doctor wears a contraption similar to the instrument of torture he straps Wozzeck into. Many of the minor male characters are exactly the same variation on Frankenstein’s monster. It is, it seems, the world as seen from Wozzeck’s own eyes, with Marie as the only refuge among the expressionist monsters.
The child oversees much of the action and learns to make sense of it, writing PAPA over the father who never acknowledges him, later adding GELD (money) and HURE (whore). He is, we can see, going to turn out exactly like the father who ignores him. That father seems, unlike the oblivious other characters, hyperalert, and yet entirely uncomprehending. The Personenregie is not particularly musical, at least not in an analytic sense. I doubt Kriegenburg could tell you much about Berg's symphonic forms, and he seems to care more about Büchner's fragmentation than Berg's cohesion. Much of the opera is delivered in a presentational style, right out to the audience. It’s simultaneously an alienating tactic and an apt reflection of the characters’ own alienation. In another Brechtian touch, the stage music is played by an onstage ensemble in modern concert dress. A gloomy crowd of black-clad unemployed watch and occasionally provide physical support to the action, with platforms for the Drum Major and the orchestra literally on their backs, in a way similar to the Ring supernumeraries.
But it’s a classical staging as well, just as reluctant as Kriegenburg’s Ring to take on a specific social context. This is, that is to say, like the first three parts of his Ring, not the last. The unemployed in their coats, the water, the blank cement all speak to a timeless, placeless misery. It operates on a level of simple images that resonate with the music and story on a deep level. Except for the splashing through the water, there’s never any friction between the two. It’s not quite as simple as it looks—and I expect the Personenregie was considerably tighter on the 2008 premiere than this one-off revival—but simplicity is its greatest asset.
I don’t think Simon Keenlyside has sung in this production before, but he seemed to fit in well. Vocally, this role is, like much of the music he sings these days, a size too big for his lyric baritone. When he struggles to be heard he tends to sound pressured and grainy. But he seems to have the part in his bones, and makes a twitchy yet disconnected Wozzeck. Waltraud Meier’s Marie is the only character who seems to have any life left in her, miserable as she is. Meier’s voice is still very strong in the higher registers, and she sings this music with passionate earnestness.
Lothar Koenig’s conducting tended towards the beautiful, tragic side of thinsg, finding its vocal counterpart in Meier’s almost Romantic Marie. (He seemed very preoccupied with giving cues to everyone, I suspect this one-off was not so thoroughly rehearsed.) The orchestra played with sustained intensity that was, at times, just a touch messy, particularly in the winds. As might be expected, the strings turned in a Mahlerian rendition of the Act III interlude. The singers of the supporting roles sang more dramatically than beautifully, but that’s only in fitting with the production. Having endured his Aegisth twice I am not fan of Wolfgang Schmidt’s yelpy tenor, but for the Hauptmann it is just right. Roman Sadnik sounded underpowered as the Tambourmajor, but had a commanding presence, as did Clive Bayley as the Doctor.
Overall I found this production devastating, while the Ring rarely went beyond nicely poignant. The concentrated intensity of Berg and Büchner are perhaps a better match for Kriegenburg's austerity, and while when staging the Ring a grand historical vision is non-negotiable, in a 90-minute piece it might be too much. I must admit this was my first time seeing Wozzeck live; it is not often played. (I have hardly avoided it. In college I studied it in music, German, and theater classes, at one point making me suspect I was actually majoring in Woyzeck/Wozzeck Studies. For comparison, I didn’t study Lulu once.) This performance sold out and received a sustained, enthusiastic ovation, heartening for a work considered so audience-unfriendly. Kriegenburg’s pitch-perfect production plus local factors (local language, the relative levels of general musical literacy in Munich versus New York) have made that rare thing: a high art popular success.
Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl. More follow after the video.