Alban Berg - Wozzeck
Salzburg Festival, 2017
Vladimir Jurowski, William Kentridge, Matthias Goerne, John Daszak, Mauro Peter, Gerhard Siegel, Jens Larsen, Tobias Schabel, Huw Montague Rendall, Heinz Göhrig, Asmik Grigorian, Frances Pappas
Medici.tv - 27 August 2017
Like Alban Berg's only other stage work Lulu, Wozzeck is an opera where the music and the drama are intricately connected. Quite how Berg manages to achieve this synthesis in both pieces is complex and would take years to analyse, but there's not really any need for it to be interpreted; the power of these two remarkable works and how they are expressed speaks for itself. It's not really for a director to interpret Lulu or Wozzeck, as you think an artist like William Kentridge might do, as much as provide mood and context. Kentridge, as with his production of Lulu, does this well in this Salzburg Festival production, staging a Wozzeck that firmly has his own individual stamp (what Kentridge staging doesn't?) while not letting that vision get in the way of the work itself.
Georg Büchner's Woyzeck is a study of a man's - or man's - physical and mental limitations. In the 24 quite harsh and gruelling fragments of the unfinished drama, a body and a mind are tested as far as they can be pushed before their owner goes over the edge. Is there just one thing that proves to be too much for Franz Woyzeck, or is it an accumulation of miseries and torments of a wretched existence? Woyzeck is perhaps not so much a bleak account of how miserable life can be as how much strength is required to deal with the daily vicissitudes of life and how delicate and fragile a balance the human psyche rests on.
There is no strict order to the fragments of Büchner's Woyzeck, which is a factor that tends to work in its favour, preventing it from being a simple matter of cause and effect leading to madness and murder. Whatever way you look at it though, in the case of both Büchner and Berg it's apparent from that Franz Wozzeck is cracking. A common soldier, he is brutalised by the captain in his unit, he is experimented on by the doctor, he takes on odd jobs and consequently has little time or thought for his unmarried partner Marie and their child. The dissatisfied Marie's lewd affair with a handsome drum major is just one other factor that beats him down physically as well as mentally.
But Wozzeck also has another element that is less easily identified or rationalised; Franz is affected by hallucinations. Is this just a reaction of his body reacting to the pressures it is undergoing, an indication that his mind is breaking, or a sign of his ability or desire to see something greater beyond the material world? Franz certainly longs for meaning in order, for life to adhere to a structure that makes sense, but instead he finds nature cruel and capricious. Everyone is either looking for power, fame, recognition or satisfaction of their own private desires. To the doctor for example hoping that his experiments on Franz will make him famous, Wozzeck is "a mere human being" not worth losing sleep over, "The death of a salamander would be far more serious".
The world that Wozzeck inhabits is one where horizons are being closed down, where hopes are being dashed, where darkness is gathering. William Kentridge's production at Salzburg is one then that compartmentalises each of the scenes down into little vignettes, brief little areas of illumination in the dark apocalyptic world of the mind. The doctor's cabinet is like a small toilet space, other scenes open up and close, connected by rickety platforms, where only a watery death at the bottom awaits. The set of Wozzeck's mind is filled of course with projections of Kentridge's animated thick-line black ink sketches, depicting life, war, with grotesque figures wearing distorted face masks. War imagery features prominently, suggesting that Wozzeck's disintegrating mind might be caused by PTSD or, in a wider context, that it is the world that has been distorted beyond recognition by the horrors of war.
Kentridge's concepts and drawings are brought to life by the set designs of Sabine Theunissen and co-directed by Luc De Wit, and they do manage to connect everything and bring a continuity here that's not there in Büchner's scenes. But it feels illustrative and doesn't come anywhere close to expressing the madness or despair that is at the heart of Wozzeck, nor the sense of an order of madness that Berg's music constructions suggest. The tavern scene, for example, should be a scene where in Wozzeck's perspective the whole world "writhes and rolls in fornication", but there's little sense of this, nor in the direction of Wozzeck himself do we really get a sense of him buckling under the pressures of his tormentors and his own delusions.
Kentridge might not get to the heart of Wozzeck then - and maybe that's a place we don't really want to delve into too deeply - but as a performance and a spectacle illustrative of a work of infinite richness, there's still a great deal to admire and provoke thoughts in the 2017 Salzburg Wozzeck. There's much to find of interest in the musical performance of the Vienna Philharmonic directed by Vladimir Jurowski (much too much to take in on a single listening), and the singing performances are all good, although I found little in them that was really satisfying in terms of characterisation and continuity. It's more important for Franz and Marie that the other cast of grotesques, and in that respect Matthias Goerne could certainly have done with a little more direction, and Asmik Grigorian just didn't the lusty verve or the earthy complexity of Marie's emotional openness.
In a work as complex and delicately balanced as Wozzeck, it's important to establish a connection between the music and the drama, and Kentridge sets the mood, illustrates it well and allows Berg's musical score to fill in the areas where it is best placed to probe the deeper questions raised in the work. But Berg's opera still needs more than that. There's a human element that is admittedly submerged in some very dark and abstract ideas, but - like Lulu as well - it is essential that the singers don't just perform it, but are able to bring something human and personal that allows the audience to relate to and find a context for the difficult experiences that Franz and Marie undergo. The Salzburg production has much to admire, but it doesn't have the essential human involvement.
Links: Salzburger Festspiele, Medici.tv