Archive for Wozzeck


Posted in Opera with tags , , on October 3, 2009 by telescoper

It was a late decision for me to go to see Welsh National Opera‘s production of Wozzeck last night (Friday 2nd October) at the Wales Milennium Centre. It has been a busy week and I’m travelling at the weekend too, so I wasn’t sure I could fit it in. In the end, I am really glad I did because it was by far the best of the three operas WNO are presenting in the current season; you can read about the other two here and here.

Stylistically, Wozzeck (composed by Alban Berg) is a far cry from Madam Butterfly and La Traviata but it is also a tragedy of some sort. The principal character – Wozzeck himself –  is one of life’s losers. The Opera opens with him establishing his servile nature by shaving a character called the Captain in order to supplement his salary. The original story has a military setting, but in this production it is moved to a factory producing tins of baked beans.

Wozzeck has fathered a child out of wedlock with Marie and is doing everything he can to earn money for her and their son. Later on we find out that he is also trying to earn cash by helping another character, the Doctor, in a medical experiment the main element of which seems to involve eating a large quantity of the baked beans produced in the factory.

Perhaps caused by his peculiar diet as well as the stress of his personal situation, Wozzeck is clearly losing his marbles. He suffers from hallucinations. Then Marie has an affair with another character, the Drum Major  we know he’s a bad guy because he likes golf and wears nasty white shoes. The Doctor and the Captain see the Drum Major and Marie in flagrante delicto and subsequently taunt Wozzeck with his lover’s infidelity. Wozzeck goes berserk, challenges the Drum Major to a fight and gets himself badly beaten up for his trouble. He takes  out his frustration on Marie, luring her outside and then killing her by cutting her throat with an opened baked bean tin. He doesn’t have the sense to wash the blood from his hands and when this is spotted he returns to the scene and tries to find the murder weapon. In the original story Wozzeck had thrown the weapon (a knife) into a lake: trying to get it back in order to hide it in a better place he falls in and drowns. In this production he had thrown the tin can into a huge hopper full of similar tins. He falls into this and dies among the rubbish. In the final scene, his young son is told of the death of his mother and father but it doesn’t really sink in. He sings a childish song and opens a tin of baked beans. Like father, like son.

The stark industrialised scenery and drably austere clothing  serve to reinforce the steady dehumanisation of Wozzeck and accentuate his descent into madness.  The subtext is about the exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged; the message is that those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. Wozzeck’s actions are not condoned, but we know from the start that he’s a man in trouble and if only someone had helped him rather than everyone tormenting him, things might have turned out for the better. Shades of Peter Grimes.

Peter Hoare was a creepily comical Captain and Cliver Bailey an appropriately ghoulish Doctor. Marie was sung beautifully by Wioletta Chodowicz. But even these were somewhat eclipsed by Christopher Purves’ wonderful and deeply moving performance as the tortured Wozzeck. His singing and acting raised the level of this to truly world-class. One of the best I’ve ever seen.

The real star of the show for me, though, was Berg’s amazing music, which managed to be both sumptious and edgy at the same time. This is an atonal piece, and I know some people are pretty much allergic to music that doesn’t rest on a tonal framework. But the orchestral colours Berg achieves have a remarkable effect in combination with the action on stage and some of the more lyrical passages are intensely beautiful.

Actually, it’s a remarkable opera altogether. For a start it’s exceptionally compact. Three Acts each of five Scenes but the overall running time is about 90 minutes (with no interval). The music for each act is constructed like a concert work. The three Acts are marked Five Character Pieces, Symphony in Five Movements and Six Inventions (five of the latter accompany the scenes, the sixth is an orchestral interlude before the final scene). There are leitmotifs, unusual vocal techniques such as Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme, innovative rhythmic explorations with strange uses of percussion, and so on. Berg packs so much into this work that it is definitely one to listen to over and over again.

I and the rest of the audience responded very enthusiastically both to the performers on stage and  to the Orchestra of WNO who did full justice to a 20th Century masterpiece. Bravo!