The plight of the introvert, stigmatised by society despite the many benefits of their contemplative natures and inner strength, is an important part of the contemporary Zeitgeist, but it is in fact nothing new. In the early to mid 20th century, fuelled by Freud and psychoanalysis, this concept was particularly strong, and fed into the works of artists of many different stripes, producing some of the greatest works of 20th-century opera. Britten’s Peter Grimes, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle all draw on this idea in their own ways, but perhaps the most significant opera to draw on the idea is Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck.

Michael Volle (Wozzeck), Francesco Petrozzi (2nd Workman) © Wilfried Hösl
Michael Volle (Wozzeck), Francesco Petrozzi (2nd Workman)
© Wilfried Hösl

Wozzeck plots the descent of its eponymous anti-hero into madness at the hands of the exploitative military and an unfaithful partner. Wozzeck is unsure of his place in the world. He scrubs out and flees when his bastard child paints the label “Papa” over his head, and his lowly station conflicts with his contemplative personality, reflected in his quoting of the Bible throughout the opera. His partner, Marie, is also clearly a thinking character, evidenced by her own biblical lines, and doesn’t relate to her child as she feels a mother should. Unable to deal with her isolation, she seeks consolation in the arms of the Drum Major, only to be overcome by guilt. Bullied by the Captain, experimented on by the Doctor, and cheated on by Marie, Wozzeck begins to experience psychotic visions, in which the whole world burns from the earth to the heavens. Driven mad by jealousy, he stabs Marie before plunging into a psychotic episode and drowning himself in the pond in an effort to clean the blood off his hands.

The current production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, premiëred in 2008, is a true masterpiece, and by far the best production of this opera I’ve seen. German director Andreas Kriegenburg puts at the centre the struggles of the faceless and nameless poor. Wozzeck and Marie’s desperate cries of “Wir arme Leut’” (“We poor people”), which closes a number of the scenes, is followed by actors, representing the poor, scurrying around on stage after dropped food or coins. Later in the opera the onstage band performs on a platform supported by the backs of the poor; high culture is literally treading on the poor people, oppressing them physically and culturally. Not only is this visually striking imagery, but it also illuminates on of the central ideas surrounding both the opera and Georg Büchner’s play, on which it is based: the poor can’t afford morals.

The staging is darkly cinematic, with a room suspended from the ceiling zooming in and out, while action takes place both within it and underneath. The flooded stage and occasional rain recalls the use of weather in Hollywood films to accompany moments of tragedy, while simultaneously creating something otherworldly, which is furthered by the use of lighting and strange costumes. Even the title and act numbers are projected onto a screen in front of the stage in a self-conscious imitation of the world of film. The effect is electrifying, giving Wozzeck’s demise the immediacy which it can so often lack on stage.

Perhaps Kriegenburg’s greatest insight is looking at the story as an archetype. So often Wozzeck can be a confusing opera, with a somewhat disjointed story, and no clear moral outcome. By portraying Wozzeck as an introverted moral philosopher, whose downfall is brought on by the conflict between his personality and his lowly station, Kriegenburg creates an archetypal tragedy, clarifying the whole opera. Mixing this idea with cinematic staging techniques achieves the seemingly impossible feat of producing a 21st-century Wozzeck which simultaneously takes the opera right back to its roots in tragedy.

Wozzeck is not really a singers’ opera, with no roles capable of acting as a showboat for a particular cast member, in spite of their virtuosity. This makes it all the more raw and dramatic, and gives the music a greater importance, with the orchestra playing a vital role throughout. In spite of this there were some notable performances from the excellent cast. Waltraud Meier gave a dark and conflicted portrayal of Marie, with faultless vocal delivery, and Wolfgang Schmidt’s Captain was every bit the foolish tyrant, also delivered with a complete mastery of the many vocal challenges. Wozzeck himself, played by Georg Nigl, epitomised the achievements of the entire cast, bringing music and drama together into a seamless whole. The role of the child, played superbly by a sadly unnamed child actor, was expanded far more than Berg states in the score, showing how Marie and Wozzeck ignore the disturbing behaviour of their neglected child, too wrapped up in their own personal turmoil.

Kent Nagano led the orchestra and cast through the score with an attention to detail that few conductors could manage in this intricate music. The orchestra sought out the meaning in the complexity, giving the performance a transparency and ease of understanding. Wozzeck is so often described a “difficult” opera, as much for audiences as for the performers, and in the hands of the Bayerische Staatsoper and its ensemble this difficulty was easily forgotten. From this production it is clear to see why the Staatsoper’s new Ring Cycle has also been entrusted to Kriegenburg; he is a true master of the art of opera directing and this Wozzeck simply must be seen.

*****