Take a cast of characters whose faces are chalk white, whose oversized lips are ruby red, whose headgear − whether Napoleonic bicorne or half-metre high top hat − is heavily laden with decoration. Stuff the peculiarly dysfunctional characters into costumes that are vulgar and exaggerated: the cocoon of the motherly apron or the navy worsted of formal military dress. Add to that a mix of maudlin sentimentality, callous treatment of the underprivileged, brutal sadism and sexual exploitation, and you’ll feel the pulse of this downright superb production.

Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck) © Monika Rittershaus
Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck)
© Monika Rittershaus
The set design alone (Michael Levine) sets it apart from the start. Based on the idea of a Victorian model theatre − whose interchangeable wings showed one picturesque interior or landscapes behind the other − the first image here is one enormous picture frame. At the start, the action happens only behind its lowermost “rung”; the figures are visible only from the waist up. Successively, that space opens up behind into a world of painful small-mindedness and human tragedy.

Based on the Georg Büchner play “Woyzeck”, Alban Berg’s opera consists of three acts of five scenes each. Together the 15 vignettes make a seamless structure around a libretto that Berg adapted from the play by Austrian playwright, Georg Büchner. Usually considered the first 20th century opera in the avant-garde genre and a supreme example of atonal music, the opera premiered in Berlin in December 1925 to critical reviews. The city’s Deutsche Zeitung carried one Paul Zschorlich’s assessment: “In Berg’s music there is not a trace of melody. There are only scrapes, sheds, spasms and burps.” Berg’s other critics were considerably less kind, and the Nazi regime consigned the work in the 1930s to the ranks of “degenerate art”.

Degenerate? The new Zurich production is as fascinating an opera as I’ve ever heard. Riveted to the stage for its full 90-minute duration, I was awash in the narrative that Berg’s music sets off so brilliantly, and where certain motifs underscore different moods. The neighbour Margret’s (Irène Friedli) heckling was backed by march music, the seduction/sexual violence at the end of Act I, accompanied by strident horns. Again and again, the famously despicable Drum Major (the superb Brandon Jovanovich) is subject to the blare of a brassy percussion. And Wozzeck’s repetitive “Wir arme leut” (We are the poor folk) is repeated in a striking chord to put us on edge around the futility of the character hoping to change his dire situation.

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Marie) and Brandon Jovanovich (Drum Major) © Monika Rittershaus
Gun-Brit Barkmin (Marie) and Brandon Jovanovich (Drum Major)
© Monika Rittershaus
As the opera progresses, the theatre model opens up, expanding into a rectangle-within-a-rectangle image that makes multiple “stages” for action. Poor Wozzeck’s down-and-out status is often reflected in the encroaching black void that cramps and overpowers his space. In the lead role, Christian Gerhaher is as fine an actor as he is a baritone, at once accommodating and brow-beaten, then both loving and ruthless. His voice takes on the pressing “darkness” when for him, “the sun’s gone down,” and he ultimately murders his adored Marie since if he can’t have her, nobody can. Marie (the spectacular soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin) is as conniving a voluptuous redhead as he is a well-meaning sod, a man driven by nightmares and numbed by feelings of social inadequacy. After the murder, the multiple, receding frames of the set tilt on their side, since by then, the world as Wozzeck knows it has grown even more “askew.”

Saddest, the Magdalene-harlot Marie − whom he loves to extinction but who repents too late − has born him a son. The child was brilliantly portrayed: no more than a puppet with an adult-sized wooden head, the “boy” moves his head left to right in Marie’s arms. At the final curtain, he gives the audience a haunting stare that leaves us all on tenterhooks.

Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck) and Chorus © Monika Rittershaus
Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck) and Chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

All of the principals sang with utmost confidence and character. Among the finest were the Mengele-like Doctor (Lars Woldt), an evil self-promoter of the first order who ropes Wozzeck into medical experiments on the promise of an extra penny, and the Drum Major (Brandon Jovanovich) whose ludicrously phallic hat pommel signals one of the strong points of his character. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke made a superbly humorous Captain. Mauro Peter’s fine voice and swagger convincingly portrayed Andres' naivety of youth, and, being a “Zurich boy”, the tenor showed the broadest smile at the curtain call.

Finally, the Philharmonia Zürich excelled under Fabio Luisi’s baton; the opera choir (Jürg Hämmerli, director) gave a compelling performance in their top hats and fiery red wigs; and the artistic director Andreas Homoki hasn’t done a better job of staging since he arrived in Zurich three seasons ago. In short: here’s an opera not to be missed!