Alban Berg's Wozzeck is filled with memories of war. When the composer was sent off to fight with an Austrian regiment in 1915, work on the opera slowed, though its completion remained a constant obsession. The "snoring chorus" is just one allusion to Berg's experiences on the front line and, in a letter to his wife, he even described Wozzeck as partially based on himself. "I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact, humiliated," he explained.

Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck) © Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz

Visual artist William Kentridge's new production of the work for the Salzburg Festival is also filled with memories of war. He sets the action in a wrecked building and, as with his production of Lulu, overlays the set with his trademark animated sketches, here set alongside flashes of film footage, to form a web of visual motifs which is powerfully evocative of the Great War. The grimmest of these become recurring motifs – we get severed heads scattered on a field (first seen when, in Scene 2, he is plagued by harrowing visions) as well as haunting figures clad is gas masks – while the characters and extras weave through the visual tapestry to become part of an integrated expressionistic whole. The grotesque, cartoon-like puppet that stands for Wozzeck and Marie's child could have been taken out of a film by Tim Burton.

Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck) © Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz

It is a skilfully constructed production, and one that plays with the our perspectives. Whether the images are flashbacks from a war-troubled Wozzeck or a Büchner-esque portent of the horrors to come is left for the audience to decide. So too is the question of whether to take the production as essentially realist or as a representation of the contents of Wozzeck's troubled mind, with Kentridge tempting us to take the latter route when a cupboard opens onto a nightmarish depiction of the scene in which he is tormented by the Doctor. And yet, for all of the detailed artistry, this is fundamentally a straightforward conception, whose main strength lies in the clarity with which the plot is presented. Aided by his coproducer Luc De Wit, Kentridge's management of the human components of the production is strong. The allegory that plain human malice is ultimately what makes war possible is a constant presence.

Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck) and Asmik Grigorian (Marie) © Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck) and Asmik Grigorian (Marie)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz

From within a strong cast, Asmik Grigorian as Marie is the discovery of the evening. Her voice is rich, bright and possesses enough steely edge to communicate this gritty personality. Hers is a diabolical, grimly erotic Marie who, far from guilty about her unfaithfulness to Wozzeck, relishes her part in bringing about the protagonist's demise. Matthias Goerne, who plays Wozzeck as a broken man from the start, has a strong physical presence, and the right dark growl in his voice for a role with which he has become closely associated in recent years. He reels through the set, his face knotted in grimaces, and possesses a chillingly empty stare when, devoured by jealousy, he watches Marie cavorting with her new lover.

John Daszak (Drum Major) and Asmik Grigorian (Marie) © Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
John Daszak (Drum Major) and Asmik Grigorian (Marie)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz

John Daszak's Drum Major, clad in gleaming white military attire and sporting Hapsburg-era whiskers, gets the balance between gallantry and antipathy just right. Gerhard Siegel is an aptly hysterical Hauptmann, while Jens Larsen's Doctor works well as his antithesis. Vladimir Jurowski delivers a clean, fleet and muscular rendition of the score to take us to the work's inevitable denouement with inexorable forward drive. Berg's music seethes and pulses in Jurowski's hands, and the lushness of sound he evokes in the final interlude, for example, is especially affecting. When all is said and done, the gas-mask clad puppet is all that remains on an empty stage: a powerful reminder of the broader consequences of individual human savagery.