Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck is a perfect amalgam of music and text and, as such, cries out for a worthy staging to maximise its theatrical impact. Although neither Georg Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck nor Berg’s setting of fifteen of its scenes can be given a single-genre sticker, one way to describe them is as psychological thrillers. Even without stage direction, this concert performance played out like a thriller, with shudders aplenty.

Florian Boesch © Lukas Beck
Florian Boesch
© Lukas Beck
Büchner’s play, an indictment of class injustice, was inspired by a much-discussed trial in Leipzig. In 1824, Johann Christian Woyzeck was beheaded for killing his unfaithful girlfriend in a fit of jealousy. An eminent physician had drawn a lengthy report of his state of mind, describing a history of depression and paranoid psychosis. Nevertheless, he had declared Woyzeck sane and fit to stand trial. Neither Büchner nor Berg present the beleaguered barber-soldier as innocent, but they question how a man living in debasing squalor and plagued by mental illness can stand up to life’s blows. Wozzeck takes on extra jobs to support his common-law wife and child, including serving as a guinea pig in the Doctor’s experiments. His reward is to be admonished for living in sin by his moralising Captain and exploited by the Doctor, who rejoices in the scientific value of his mental illness, but has no interest in curing him. Depleted by poverty and by Wozzeck’s inadequacy as a husband and father, his Marie surrenders to the crude attentions of the inflated Drum Major, with tragic consequences. Berg’s stupefying score depicts Wozzeck’s inner world and the malignance of his social situation, where he is mocked and abused. With a wide array of orchestral tints, from the eerie harp and celesta to the ploughing bass tuba, the orchestra recreates Wozzeck’s blind fear as his psyche crumbles and he retaliates with aggression.

On Saturday the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic was in fantastic form, playing accurately and harnessing incredible energy. Conductor Markus Stenz stressed the ruthless savagery of the music, but also made it glimmer with dark beauty. Savagery is inherent to the work, especially in the cyclones whipped up by the brass and timpani, but Stenz went further. In the tavern scene the waltz and Ländler rhythms were deliberately shorn of lightness, as pungent as sweat and sour wine. Between the crashing climaxes, the superb string and woodwind solos interlocked into tense yarns. At times the orchestra drowned the singers, as in the gruff seduction scene between Marie and the Drum Major. But this is a minor complaint in view of the overall drive of the performance, which pushed viciously towards its inexorable conclusion.

Against this orchestral ferocity, Florian Boesch and Asmik Grigorian, as Wozzeck and Marie, portrayed characters of innate nobility despite their flaws. Both wielded healthy instruments in their prime, unfaltering across all registers. Wozzeck is a complex character, blunt-witted one moment and profound the next, a hard-to-grasp Everyman figure. Boesch’s Wozzeck was bright and sensitive, poetic even. Just before he killed Marie he sang the ominous words “When the morning dew falls you won’t feel cold” as if he were serenading her. From the first scene he seethed with anger and his murderous rage and death were desperate to behold. Grigorian was not as idiomatic with Berg’s spoken voice (Sprechstimme) as Boesch, but sang gloriously, with full, shiny top notes. It was immensely gratifying to hear such an unblemished, youthful voice in this part. She brought brittle pathos to the Bible scene, when Marie repents of her infidelity, and here she and the musicians were one in intent.

On the same level were Nathan Berg’s amoral Doctor, savouring every beautifully produced syllable, and Cécile van de Sant’s juicy-voiced Margret. Endrik Wottrich’s middle voice did not have enough weight, but he brandished the crucial tenorial high notes for the Drum Major. So did Thomas Piffka, but, although he sang well, his Captain was a disappointment dramatically. He was too stable and good-natured, with little hint of the irrational anxiety of the narrow-minded. During the reed-cutting scene tenor Peter Tantsits, playing Wozzeck’s friend Andres, sounded as if he were unwell, although his voice settled somewhat later on. Richard Wiegold and Florian Just were a pair of competent Apprentices and the Netherlands Radio Choir lived to up to their excellent reputation. Although the role of the Madman is tiny, John Huezenroeder left a lasting impression, his piercing tenor, and eyes, chillingly foreshadowing the bloodshed. The Netherlands National Children’s Choir scored full marks in the last scene, in which a group of children tell Marie’s son (Mathis Raykov) that his mother is dead, after which he continues to ride his hobby-horse, uncomprehending. They and their adult colleagues have set the bar very high in the first opera at this year’s Holland Festival.

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