Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is not an uplifting experience. The opera grabs you by the neck from its first bars and refuses to let go for an hour and 45 minutes, plunging its characters and the audience into the depths of human despair. Director Christoph Loy’s stark, claustrophobic production – the first new opera production in Oslo this season – highlights the internal drama of the title character. With outstanding performances, Audun Iversen’s Wozzeck in particular, the production is a harrowing exploration of the chaos of human existence.

Asmik Grigorian (Marie) and Audun Iversen (Wozzeck) © Erik Berg
Asmik Grigorian (Marie) and Audun Iversen (Wozzeck)
© Erik Berg

In his production, Loy sets the opera in enormous, prison-like cells with sliding walls. The enormous size of the cells dwarf the characters, underlining the futility of their struggle, forcing them to exist trapped within the dark grey confines of the cell wall. Herbert Murauer’s imposing sets are not a literal prison, yet there is a definite claustrophobic feeling of being shut in. Occasionally the back wall comes apart, but only to reveal the rushes lining the pond where Wozzeck stabs Marie and eventually drowns. The only way to escape the confines of the prison is through death.

Alban Berg based his opera on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, left unfinished at his death in 1837. Büchner loosely based his play on the story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a man condemned to death for killing his wife, voices in his head compelling him to do it. Taking as his starting point this story from the infancy of forensic psychiatry, Loy zeroes in on Wozzeck’s mind, the cavernous sets and cell walls acting as isolation from the outside world. While the wanton cruelty and outright sadism of the other characters is present – the Doctor’s bizarre, ethically dubious medical experiments and the Captain’s almost slapstick cruelty – this production is, at its core, an exploration of Wozzeck’s mind.

Asmik Grigorian (Marie) and Audun Iversen (Wozzeck) © Erik Berg
Asmik Grigorian (Marie) and Audun Iversen (Wozzeck)
© Erik Berg

The production seems to stress the apparent normality of the title character. Dressed in jeans and a washed-out orange t-shirt, Wozzeck looks conspicuously normal. Indeed, of all the characters on stage, Wozzeck wears the least costume-like costume. His outward likeness to the audience makes the despair of his ever-deteriorating mental health ever more pronounced. Marie, dressed in all red, is a walking Mary Magdalene reference, yet the point is neither laboured, nor elaborated upon much. If anything, she looks like a paragon of taste and discernment next to the lurid pink dress of her neighbour Margret – a deliciously dark-voiced Tone Kummervold.

As the Captain, tenor Thor Inge Falch was a perfect fit for this kind of dramatic character role, imbuing his performance with a bleak sense of comedy, while Henrik Engelsviken’s Drum Major sounded better than he has in a long while, his top remarkably free and easy, and his acting suitably boorish. Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy sang the role of Wozzeck’s friend Andres with a beguilingly bright tenor and also proved himself a remarkably good whistler.

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg

Rising out of a magnificent supporting cast, Audun Iversen and Asmik Grigorian shone as Wozzeck and Marie. Grigorian’s huge, slightly metallic voice was seemingly limitless in expressive depth and technical assurance, soaring effortlessly above the orchestra and diving head first into daunting leaps. Iversen was frighteningly believable as a man driven further and further into insanity, moving seamlessly between tenderness and bottomless despair. Despite the enormity of Wozzeck’s emotions, Iversen shied away from overplaying the character, instead going for text-driven nuance, his voice underlining the primacy of the word, whether it be a desperate declaration of love or an anguished scream.

The orchestra under the direction of Lothar Koenigs played as if one huge, terrifying organism. They brought out the horrible beauty and hideous lyricism of Berg’s score, the sound undulating through the orchestra, the brass sounding particularly menacing. Koenigs brought out the Mahlerian streaks of the first act, yet delved ever deeper into darkness and anguish as the opera went on. The climactic unison notes preceding Marie’s murder were overflowing with angst and terror.

The last time Wozzeck was performed in Norway was at its Norwegian première 45 years ago. Judging by the resounding success of this performance, in all its devastating tragedy, another 45 years cannot go by before it is put on again.