When one thinks of the character of Wozzeck, as he is portrayed in the drama by Georg Büchner, he actually arouses pity. His attempts to make something of his unimportant life, coming to grips with social hierarchies, seeking some modicum of happiness, inspire compassion in us. 

Elena Zhidkova (Marie) and Johan Reuter (Wozzeck) © Marcus Lieberenz
Elena Zhidkova (Marie) and Johan Reuter (Wozzeck)
© Marcus Lieberenz

Not so in this production by Ole Anders Tandberg. Self-confident, without any emotion, a black-and-white video of Wozzeck’s head is projected onto the show curtain. He gazes at us directly. We are confronted with him at every scene change: 15 times. Only by his occasional blinking do we realise he is alive. And that characterises the staging: emotions are displayed but we are never touched. Even when murder and suicide are committed. Only in the last scene, when Wozzeck and Marie have collapsed lifeless at their table and their son sits alone at the other end of the hall at his table, an audible communal sigh comes from the audience – no child should suffer this fate.

Tandberg places the story in his home country, Norway. Stage designer Erlend Birkeland builds a realistic unit set of a coffee house that really exists in Oslo. A bar on the right, tables and chairs, and large panorama windows out back let us take sunsets and parades. Right from the beginning, Tandberg lets us know that he is not really interested in the composer’s stage directions: Wozzeck does not shave the captain's beard but performs a primitive "Brazilian Waxing" of the genital area of six juvenile military cadets with their pants down around their ankles who scurry off, bent over in pain.

Otherwise, the story takes place in a middle class setting. Nowhere is there any indication of need or poverty. Wozzeck and Marie are at least physically part of this segment of society, as can be seen by the well-fitting costumes that Maria Geber has designed. Even their son wears a suit and tie and eats cake. The finely crafted, traditional costumes of the chorus stand out for their lovely details. There is nothing that is reminiscent of the original Büchner financial desperation. Nor is there any interchange of emotions between the two protagonists or their child.

It is best to ignore the stage directional antics. There is enough “beef” in the music and singing in Wozzeck to carry a performance. With a rounded baritone, Johan Reuter is a Wozzeck who is pleasant enough to listen to but lacks the visceral quality to make us believe the delusions he suffers under are real. Elena Zhidkova has a penetratingly sharp soprano and her Marie knows what she wants: the vain Drum Major, sung by the vocally and dramatically convincing Thomas Blondelle. Marie's big scene, where she shows contrition for her actions, is unfortunately not emotionally convincing. She could be reading the phone book, but maybe this is the intention of the stage director.

The supporting roles are excellently cast. Seth Carico was an agile and sinister doctor who even cuts off his own finger in the name of science. As Wozzeck’s friend, tenor Matthew Newlin is his sidekick Andres, who can even accompany himself on the guitar. The Captain, with his chestful of medals, is embodied as the caricature he is by tenor Burkhard Ulrich, including singing on a rearing horse. Annika Schlicht is delightful as the waitress Margret – even though she only has a few lines to sing, Schlicht uses them to full advantage with a strong stage presence. Andrew Dickinson is the fool in a wig and national costume who also makes full use of his brief appearances to strongly establish his character and get his message across.

One of the consistently strong elements of the Deutsche Oper is the chorus, excellently prepared by Jeremy Bines. In Wozzeck, the chorus arguably does not have a large part to sing, but Tandberg has it parade across the stage several times, in full traditional costume and avidly swinging Norwegian flags.

Music Director Donald Runnicles elicits transparency, precision and colour from his musicians. Unfortunately, little of the dramatic emotions expressed in the music of Alban Berg reaches the stage. It’s as if there are two parallel worlds: hopelessness and passion in the pit, disconnection and bourgeois morality on the stage.

***11