Alban Berg - Wozzeck
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2013
Lothar Koenigs, Andreas Kriegenburg, Simon Keenlyside, Angela Denoke, Roman Sadnik, Kevin Conners, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Wolfgang Bankl, Scott Wilde, Matthew Grills, Dean Power, Heike Grötzinger
Staatsoper.TV Internet steaming - 6th October 2013
It's hard to know how you should feel or quite by what criteria you judge the performance of any Alban Berg opera. Wozzeck, Berg's only completed opera (Lulu's third act remained unfinished at the time of his death), should I suppose be a painful experience and should gradually beat you down much in the same way that life does for its protagonist. The music too is by no means comforting or easy to listen to, but neither is it inaccessible or "difficult" in the way that Lulu's 12-tone serialism can often be. As a reflection of the drama, it's dark and unrelenting, and so too is the Bayerische's 2013 production directed by Andreas Kriegenburg and conducted by Lothar Koenigs.
Part of the problem with knowing quite what to make of Wozzeck and its protagonist undoubtedly stems from the fragmentary nature of the episodes in Georg Büchner's original unfinished manuscript. Wozzeck, we are told in the introduction to the Bayerische's production, is a good man who is ground down by the system, by the brutality, ignorance and hypocrisy of other people, by poverty, misery and illness, by life in general. But is he a good man, is he an innocent or is he simply a disturbed individual? It's difficult to tell, since he reacts angrily to Marie's infidelity but remains outwardly impassive to what goes on in relation to the abuse and exploitation of his nature and character by the Captain, the Doctor and the Drum Major. Until obviously, it all becomes too much and he finally cracks...
If there's any indication then just what the inner nature of Wozzeck is, it must be found in Berg's music. Here you have his personality, his confusion and his building anger, all in a way that makes rather more sense of the eventual violent release of his frustrations. And, yes, it tells you that Wozzeck is at heart a good man. Berg's music is a rich combination of sounds, melodies and voices, a genuinely free experimental attempt to redefine the structures of operatic language outside of the constrictions of the traditional or indeed the atonal language. There are no restrictions, old is mixed with new, the three acts of five scenes are each described as 'Character Pieces' (Act I), a 'Symphony in Five Movements' (Act II) and 'Six Inventions' (Act III) that employ a variety of musical forms and styles to cover the whole range of the subject. It truly is music in service of drama and character, not in service of music itself.
If a production engages with it in the way that it ought to, it should achieve the full impact of Wozzeck's terrible sequence of dramatic events. The three acts played straight through without intermission Andreas Kriegenburg's production and Harald B. Thor's sets unquestionably achieve that. Under predominately monochrome lighting the locations are almost invariably within damp, dank and misty and silver-blue moonlit settings capture the utter darkness and misery of the situation. They also give some indication of Wozzeck's mindset and even give premonitory hints of his eventual fate - Wozzeck spending most of the time with his feet soaking as he plods across the waterlogged stage. There's practically no colour, the production team resisting the urge even to splash some red around. There's a brief flame at one stage, but no sunsets and no blood.
You would however expect the stage and lighting to depict a rather dark and grim picture, so what is notable about the Bayerische's production is its division between interiors and exteriors that don't so much coincide with Wozzeck's actual location as to whether his mind is locked-in or outwardly expressive (and even then, his outward expressions are still somewhat dissociative). There is also a slightly greater role given over to Wozzeck and Marie's son, who remains mostly within the boxed room detached from the watery floor space that the others occupy. He is mostly silent but paints words on the wall on occasion ("Papa, Geld!, Hure" - Father, Money! and Slut) that heighten the sordidness of the situations and indicate that the child is not untouched by them.
All of this works with the nature of the work itself and doesn't over-complicate the character of the music or the singing performances which are just as vital an aspect. Again you can hardly judge the singing performances for their beauty of expression, but there are nonetheless great demands placed on all the performers and they cope well. Simon Keenlyside has considerable experience in the role of Wozzeck and is performing the role in several other productions this season. His performance here is, not unexpectedly, deeply intense, conveying as much through his posture and bearing as he does through his expressive singing. Angela Denoke is just as impressive as Marie, a thankless role of a character that is scarcely any less put-upon than Wozzeck, but this is a strong production all round, with the Bayerische's regular company singers all putting in solid performances as the work's gallery of grotesques.