A composer’s first opera may well be forgotten, though certainly not that of the Viennese composer Alban Berg. Wozzeck was first performed in 1925 and was succeeded by Lulu, which was completed just after Berg’s early death at the age of 50. Both remain very much in the international repertory, including the Royal Opera House.
Adapted from a play by the German dramatist Georg Büchner, who himself died very young at 23, the opera is loosely based on a true story. A one time wigmaker (Johann Christian Woyzeck) in Leipzig, who later became a soldier, murdered Christiane Woost. In 1821 in a fit of jealousy he killed the 46- year-old widow he had been living with, and was publicly beheaded.
This might seem unpromising material, but Büchner’s tautly written drama remains on the German stage today, and after a few cuts and slight rearrangement of scenes, Berg turned it into an opera of striking power and musical invention. Wozzeck as a soldier is a poor man discombobulated by his superiors, the Captain and the Doctor. They mock his inability to keep his common law wife Marie away from the amorous attentions of the Drum Major, and poverty compels him to be paid as a subject in the Doctor’s experiments, eating a tightly controlled diet. He cannot compete with the Drum Major, and getting beaten up by him is the last straw.
Consumed by jealousy, Wozzeck kills his adored Marie. Realising he must recover and hide the knife he used, he attempts to lose it in the lake, and drowns. The play’s ending thus reflects Wozzeck’s mental state of drowning in abuse and the ill effects of the Doctor’s experiments.
Berg’s opera was last performed at Covent Garden ten years ago, and this new production is by Deborah Warner. It starts unpromisingly with the Captain and Wozzeck in the latrines, which he is cleaning, but goes on to beautifully express the poor man’s love for Marie, and her love for their little son. Her song in early Act 2 about the little bit of mirror she has, while smart ladies have full mirrors to use, came over strongly with Anja Kampe as Marie. In her tiny bit of mirror she can admire the earrings the Drum Major (Clay Hilley) has given her in return for sexual favours, but the wretched Wozzeck is not fooled.
Although the drama presents him as a man of limited mental capacity, he has a strong moral compass, expressed in his quotations from the Bible. As the Doctor, Brindley Sherratt clearly shows a self-absorbed intellectual who is trying to fit Wozzeck into his own theories, and Peter Hoare as the Captain exhibits an unimaginative man to whose assertions of morality Wozzeck can only reply repeatedly: “Jawohl, Herr Hauptman.”
Supporting roles, his friend Andres (Sam Furness) and Marie’s neighbour Margret (Rosie Aldridge) were very well performed. Wozzeck himself was superbly sung and searingly portrayed as a bit of a klutz by Christian Gerhaher, all under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, who fully draws out the music’s inherent anxiety.
This intense and superbly constructed opera is in 15 scenes, performed without a break, and Ms Warner has managed to illustrate the important thread of Marie’s son throughout. Those who know the opera will recall the ending, when the little boy is told that his mother is dead. He doesn’t understand but toddles off after the others to view the corpse beside the lake. Ms Warner emphases this final scene by exhibiting on stage a board with the words of an older boy: “Du! Dein Mutter ist tot!”
For an opera audience this is a harrowing experience. After a quiet moment for silent reflection, spoiled only by one audience member clapping early, the auditorium erupted in huge applause.
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