There’s always a danger in staging Berg’s Wozzeck that the Expressionist nature of so much of the music – its extreme emotional engagement – leads a director to think that the drama itself is Expressionist in nature. Yet there’s an argument that in telling a compelling story in straightforward narrative terms about the reality of the human condition Berg shows himself to be as much a master of verismo and naturalism as Puccini.

Nadine Lehner as Marie, Claudio Otelli as Wozzeck © Jörg Landsberg
Nadine Lehner as Marie, Claudio Otelli as Wozzeck
© Jörg Landsberg

For his new production in Bremen, the young theatre director Paul-Georg Dittrich falls into this trap and sets this tragic lesson in the consequences of psychological and physical diminution of a human being as a surreal nightmare, as an over-egged exercise in theatricality for its own sake. The laudable aim, inspired by Brecht, is apparently to set Wozzeck and his family as victims at the heart of a system of degradation, one where the outsider is shaped and destroyed by the community (shades of Peter Grimes). And there are indeed aspects of the production that reveal insight and a deep engagement with the text and music, but it all becomes somewhat over-loaded and weighed down with too many layers of visual stimulus.

© Jörg Landsberg
© Jörg Landsberg
Apart from Wozzeck himself, and to a lesser extent Marie, all the characters are presented as cartoon-like grotesques: the Captain with his oversized cod-piece and step-up boots; the Doctor with his fetish for fondling a horse-head mask; the Drum-major as an over-dressed caricature, twirling his staff; the two apprentices as wind-up mechanical dolls. The set is a construct of scaffolding that rotates regularly and which at the start shows us all these characters going about their business in their own spaces within this whole. In addition to this there is a representation of the moon circling overhead and a pair of static screens on to which video of the most nightmarish sort is projected – Wozzeck’s shaving of the captain, for example, is accompanied by gory close-up images of an all too bloody encounter with a razor, Wozzeck’s questioning of Marie about the provenance of her new jewellery by footage of a pile of coins blooding the hands that fondle it.

It’s a bit like the way that in Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle everything beyond the doors is revealed as being soaked in blood. With all this going on, as well as the ever-present children being brought to order by the drum major or taunting each other (some poor souls have to spend much of Act 3 sitting waist-deep in tanks of water as ‘punishment’), there’s simply too much busyness, to the extent that Wozzeck himself is in danger of being lost in the melee – literally so at the end as he ‘drowns’ in a sea of people with blood on their hands, one of the production’s most telling images.

Claudio Otelli and children's chorus © Jörg Landsberg
Claudio Otelli and children's chorus
© Jörg Landsberg
This diminution of the main character came in spite of the towering vocal performance of the title role by Claudio Otelli, a master of strong projection and detailed body language. His supporting cast was every bit as convincing, from Nadine Lehner’s pliant Marie and Christian-Andreas Engelhardt’s preening Drum-major to Martin Nyvall’s cavorting Captain and Christoph Heinrich’s luridly portrayed Doctor – solid, well-groomed singing from all of them. The members of the children’s chorus excelled as much in their mature acting as in their singing (the curtain calls revealed that there was one child to each adult character – if this was directorially deliberate, again one is left to guess). The Bremen Philharmonic gave a luminous yet hard-edged account of Berg’s score under the baton of Bremen’s music director Markus Poschner. The opera may have been over-directed on stage, but the evening’s musical values were some recompense. It also helped that the three acts were run together without a break, driving home the ever-increasing intensity and inevitability of the dramatic outcome. Moreover, Bremen’s production is in rep concurrently with a far more clear-sighted staging of Manfred Gurlitt’s setting of the same text in neighbouring Bremerhaven (the two versions were premiered only a few months apart in 1925/6), making for a rare chance to see and compare both operas.

***11