First staged in 1925, Wozzeck was Alban Berg's first opera, based on the unfinished 1836 play by Georg Büchner. Even today, it stands as a radical work, casting aside as it did many of the conventions of traditional opera, from the stories allowed within the form to its very musical grammar – paving the way for many subsequent modern and postmodern metamorphoses of the form (Birtwistle, Saariaho, Glass).
As such, even with its contemporary status as a classic, it's a refreshing choice for Geneva's Grand Théâtre, whose tastes can feel a little safe. In fact, it's an excellent choice for the Grand Théâtre, because it actually does very well with a straight staging – and it's nice to see the temptation to make Wozzeck ever more dark and abstract resisted. A revival of Sir David McVicar's 2015 Lyric Opera staging by Daniel Ellis, this production at the Opéra des Nations is strong and compelling.
The story is smoothly transposed to the First World War – Berg's war, rather than Büchner's. Wozzeck is the tragedy of the anonymous soldier, the common man alienated from his work and the values he's meant to fight for: God, country, bourgeois morality. The huge, extradiagetic cenotaph standing centre-stage embodies this disconnection, an homage to the war dead fundamentally separate from their bodies.
One real strong point of this production is the focus on the demented nature of the secondary characters, the bullies who chip away at Wozzeck's life coin by coin and sneer by sneer: the Doctor and the Captain, their nervous energies amped up to complement Wozzeck's rather than tamped down as a foil. It helps that both Tom Fox and Stephan Rügamer are excellent singers and actors – Fox was particularly impressive, playing easily across the huge tessitura the role of the Doctor demands, with a particularly beautiful high range. Together, one could easily imagine them alone driving a man insane.
Tension begins to swell. Christopher Maravich's lighting, adapted by Paule Constable, contributes to this in a quite physical sense – the cold grey light of the opening gradually fading into warm, gaslit sepia tones as the story swells towards its emotional climax; a harsh blast of white light when the Drum Major enters the barracks, the final trigger for Wozzeck's ultimate act of violence.
Concurrently, Vicki Mortimer's set does a splendid job of toeing the line between gritty realism and burlesque satire, from the mildew-stained curtains that serve as scene dividers to the almost steampunk vision of the tavern, complete with beer drunk from plastic hoses hooked to a rusty iron pipe. That said, the stagecraft necessary to pull all this off felt clumsy, full of clanking noises and running feet, and so time-consuming at one point that you could see the lights flicker across the hall as people checked their phones.
At the centre of this gruesome world, Wozzeck himself is portrayed with a great deal of sympathy – just a few nightmares too far gone to be a philosopher, a poet, a witness to the true beauty and horror of his environment. In the title role, Mark Stone commands the stage, a tortured electricity shining in his wide eyes and nervous salutes. There are some real standout moments: his deep growl on "Still! Alles still", his splendid Sprachgesang – "Ich seh' nichts." Still, there is a level of physical restraint to him, indeed to the whole production. It may be unsustainable to go full Klaus Kinski for a whole run, but could he bang his fist on the floor just a little harder? Could it all be just a little rougher, a little more real?
Marie suffers the most from these limitations. The idea of this Marie is very winning: age-appropriate for Wozzeck, swaggering brash and tough but, at least on this opening night, Jennifer Larmore didn't quite carry it off. Her voice is, admittedly, very impressive – an old-school Wagnerian instrument that rings out like bronze, note-perfect in the high ranges and rich and intimate in the low. But there was something untidy to her energy onstage that left the character feeling unfulfilled. One moment in particular disappointed: in the crucial scene in which the Drum Major overpowers Marie, their physical interactions were awkward, unconvincing, undercutting a really crucial scene. Still, her 'Mary Magdalene' scene was very beautiful, and there was a clutching tenderness to her interactions with her son that was genuinely moving.
Another two standout performances bear mentioning: Alexander Milev and Erlend Tvinnereim, the first and second Apprentices, who absolutely command the tavern scene in Act II, leading the choir – the Choeur du Grand Théâtre, impressive as ever – to a rousing finale.
Stefan Blunier, directing the OSR for the first time, leads them through the score with spirit and care, leaving the gentle string interludes time to spool out and letting the low brass spark in their moments of drama. There can be a temptation to overdo it with Wozzeck, milking the dissonance and tension to the detriment of the work's intricacy, and this is excellently resisted here: all the fragments of hunting songs, drinking songs, lullabies are given their space to shine.
All of this comes together to form a very moving background for Wozzeck's fall. Franz is no traditional opera hero – Roman emperor, no Italian duke; neither commedia del arte fool nor fairy-tale villain. He's a real flesh and blood man, a poor man, his miserable true story lifted from a news clipping. Franz Wozzeck is, above all, defined by what happens to him: his life as a partner, father, member of the community is only lived in snatches before he has to go back to his role as lab rat, dogsbody, footsoldier – and ultimately, inevitably, as murderer. This production understands that this is the chilling heart of the story, and lets it take centre stage.
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