Alben Berg was stunned at the 1914 Viennese première of Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck. The social message was gritty. The portrayal of a mental breakdown harrowing. He immediately set to work on recasting the 27 dramatic fragments, striving to preserve the drama's essential essence. Jürgen Flimm's warhorse production, first seen at La Scala in 1997, also stays faithful to the original conception. Through a combination of clever staging and musical wizardry from Ingo Metzmacher, this production digs deep to the core of the Büchner-Berg vision.

Michael Volle (Wozzeck) and Ricarda Merbeth (Marie) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Michael Volle (Wozzeck) and Ricarda Merbeth (Marie)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Jürgen Flimm may be a veteran of the Regietheater movement, but his key achievement here is to steer clear of obfuscatory meddling. Costumes place us vaguely in the 19th-century. The set is a stark, grubby nonentity. A central concave structure spits out each scene's requisites, soldiers and townsfolk flashing up like apparitions from the vortex of Wozzeck's mind. When Wozzeck chases Marie down the rabbit hole, he reappears holding her neck in the following scene. Flimm's key device achieves flow between Berg's jolting scene switches, and it shatters spatial linearity in a disorientating portrayal of inner turmoil. 

The stage bubbles with tension. Whilst much of that comes from characters' scintillating interrelations, deft symbolism is also at work to sharpen our experience. Top-hatted medical students carry glowing bell jars, their concern with Wozzeck purely scientific. They scribble furiously when their human guinea pig groans, inhumanely unperturbed. A girl crossing the stage on horseback becomes a motif with no immediate reference. Its effect is one of destabilising alienation. 

With perspectives artfully muddled, our grip on reality slips. When a nocturnal Wozzeck paces the barracks, Andres and Margret roll into the shadows. What is real, and what is a figment of his imagination? The distinction between actor and other teeters on a precipice when an onstage chamber ensemble is sucked into the abyss. Their playing grinds to a halt as they fall to the charms of tavern wenches. 

Ricarda Merbeth (Marie) and Roberto Saccà (Drum-Major) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Ricarda Merbeth (Marie) and Roberto Saccà (Drum-Major)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

A dust down of Flimm's production wasn't always part of the plan. György Kurtág's Fin de partie was originally billed for early November: a new opera based on the absurdist play Beckett penned in French and translated into the English Endgame. Delays in the work's completion mean that Metzmacher will conduct the work in year's time, though one assumes that the switch-up poses minimum fuss to La Scala's go-to-man for modern repertoire. A leading interpreter of Wozzeck, Metzmacher's reading was a revelation.

Knees sprung and arms coiled, Metzmacher moves mercury over a flat surface. Berg's fluttering alchemy spilled out with untrammelled fluidity, from the hopping marches to fizzing polkas. There was requisite muscularity when required, especially in rampant timpani for the transformation music that follows Marie's murder. After an exquisite moment of silence just scenes before, Marie prayed by candlelight as the orchestra warmed to a glow. Berg intended his strict forms to go unperceived. With such high-definition clarity, they were able to work their glue-like magic

Ricarda Merbeth as Marie was just one component of an artfully selected cast. Voluptuous in voice, she was perfect for the role's introspective soul-searching as well as its coarse coquetry. Her barrel-chested fling the Drum Major gets a pugnacious reading from Roberto Saccà, a grotesque caricature, thrusting his band stick up and down. The relationship between the two was ripe with erotic tension, and the rape scene enormously powerful.

Alain Coulombe (Doctor), Michael Volle (Wozzeck) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Captain) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Alain Coulombe (Doctor), Michael Volle (Wozzeck) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Captain)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

There is little beauty to Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's Hauptmann, whose shrill, rapping sound torments Wozzeck relentlessly. Alain Coulombe's Doctor is more dangerous than his pantomime persona would initially suggest, degrading Wozzeck to the extent that he forces his head into a feeding trough. Wozzeck was sensationally played by Michael Volle. His great voice filled the auditorium with a flat, leaden quality for the character at his most dejected. Whenever Wozzeck raged, his singing crackled to life. Acting was vivid and direct, and Wozzeck's demise disturbingly portrayed.

Berg is not the go to composer for many of the La Scala faithful. Closing the season with an old classic, we are reminded that this economical realisation of an expressionist nightmare is one of the House's great assets.

****1