This new Wozzeck at Dutch National Opera is ugly, and disturbingly brilliant. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging distills the desperation of trying to scramble up from the lowest rung of society. Changing certain details of the plot, Warlikowski nevertheless stays true to the grimy realism of Georg Büchner’s play. Marc Albrecht conducts Berg’s score with the hyperreal clarity of a nightmare. On opening night, minor reservations about the overall strong cast were wiped out by the concerted impact of the performance, which slowly wrapped itself around one’s head like an encroaching migraine.

Warlikowski’s starting point is the real-life murderer who inspired Büchner’s play. Johann Christian Woyzeck, wig-maker and soldier, was executed in Leipzig in 1824 for killing his mistress in a fit of jealous rage. A medical report described him as severely depressed and suffering from what we would now call paranoid schizophrenia, but still declared him fit to stand trial. Woyzeck’s messy life started with him losing his mother when he was eight and his father when he was thirteen. Between this blighted beginning and his mental illness, the operatic Wozzeck in this production, a hard-working man with tender paternal feelings, does not stand a chance of keeping afloat. Neither does his son, ostracised by his more socially acceptable peers, nor his girlfriend Marie, an addict and prostitute (not retired, as implied in the libretto). Warlikowski’s characters move in a hideous black space in front of a wall-wide slide. Wozzeck tries to scale it in vain. In the final scene, the chorus of children easily slides down it to taunt Marie’s orphaned child. Three giant walls descend to circumscribe certain scenes. Sundry pieces of furniture suggest specific locations such as a hair salon or a nightclub, but we are mostly in Wozzeck’s head.

Like Berg’s score, with its eerie celesta, vertiginous scales and pounding chords, Warlikowski’s narration achieves the daunting task of describing the process of going mad. Both the reed-cutting scene and Wozzeck’s drowning in the pond take place at the hair salon where Wozzeck is an inadequate barber and wig-maker. In these episodes, the original plot details become Wozzeck’s hallucinations. In others, such as when the drunken Drum Major, having seduced Marie, attacks Wozzeck at the barracks, it is purposely ambiguous whether the events are real or delusional.

By giving children a prominent role, Warlikowski stresses the intergenerational perniciousness of poverty and mental illness. Marie’s bespectacled child, ably played by Jacob Jutte, is a mini Wozzeck. Warlikowski has him recite a harrowing “fairy tale” from Büchner’s play about an orphan overwhelmed by loneliness. The curtain opens on a slick troupe of ballroom-dancing children who, before the opening bars of the opera proper, spit out Marie’s child as if he were poison. They reappear as miniature grown-ups while Marie attends a dinner dance with the Drum Major. These adult-children personify Wozzeck and Marie’s unattainable middle-class aspirations as well as society’s indifference to its underdogs. The added scenes, spoken or silent, never detracted from the mounting horror of the piece, thanks to the meticulous build-up of scenic detail and Albrecht’s suspenseful conducting. Although not always pitch-perfect in the initial scenes, the orchestra fluently rendered the score’s rich variety, from the spidery delicacy that accompanies the singers to the precise savagery of the violent crises. The onstage ensembles played dazzlingly and the chorus was commendable.

Christopher Maltman and Eva-Maria Westbroek made impressive role debuts as Wozzeck and Marie. Maltman sang evenly and tautly and cut a piteous figure. Stiff and awkward, he moved as if trapped in his own body. Moments of pathos were rare – Maltman’s Wozzeck was driven by terror and stewing violence from the start. Westbroek’s house-cleaving top notes and the flashing metal of her soprano perfectly suited Marie’s wretched desperation. While Maltman crouched helplessly like a hunted rabbit, Westbroek roamed the stage, laughing, crying, dancing and collapsing. She tried and failed to live decently and mother consistently. This was a forceful and complete portrayal of a flawed woman who keeps hoping against hope. 

Tenor Frank van Aken matched her vocal heft as her alpha male lover, the Drum Major. Although his middle voice needed more presence, tenor Marcel Beekman had the sharp-edged high notes for the neurotic Captain and the prophetic Madman. As Wozzeck’s other nemesis, the Doctor, Sir Willard White, with his reposed bass and clinical coldness, was his vocal and temperamental antipode. Ursula Hesse von den Steinen as Marie’s neighbour Margret and tenor Jason Bridges as Andres, Wozzeck’s colleague, were solid as both singers and actors. Tenor Morschi Franz and bass Scott Wilde delivered finely judged performances as the two apprentices. To reduce this production to an inventory of its parts, however, as the Doctor reduces Wozzeck to a list of symptoms, is to miss its complex humanity. Its full ugliness and truth need to be taken in as a whole.