Wozzeck: Drowning

Wozzeck is a
nasty, brutal, and short opera. Producing it requires balancing the human and
the inhuman, where a murderer is maybe the most sympathetic figure (unless
you’re counting the little kid). Andreas Kriegenburg’s acclaimed Bayerische
Staatsoper production—it’s what got him the Ring
job—does this expertly, and more, its characters splashing around in ankle-deep
water with no sign of relief.
While putting on a single performance of Wozzeck for a festival is unusual (it
not being known as an audience-pleasing star vehicle that is easy to put together without much rehearsal), when you can get
Waltraud Meier and Simon Keenlyside to do it, you probably should, and the Munich audience seemed to like it as much as I did.

Berg, Wozzeck. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/22/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Lothar Koenigs

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Chor Sören Eckhoff
Dramaturgie Miron Hakenbeck
Kinderchor Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Wozzeck Simon Keenlyside
Tambourmajor Roman Sadnik
Andres Kevin Conners
Hauptmann Wolfgang Schmidt
Doktor Clive Bayley
1. Handwerksbursche Christoph Stephinger
2. Handwerksbursche Francesco Petrozzi
Der Narr Kenneth Roberson
Marie Waltraud Meier
Margret Heike Grötzinger€

Note: the photos show two previous casts in this production.
Waltraud Meier is in some of the pictures (the other Marie is Michaela
Schuster), the Wozzecks are Michael Volle and Georg Nigl.
This production is, like the Ring, deceptively simple and never strays too far from convention,
and yet its subtle invention is quietly amazing. Much more than the Ring it creates a concentrated visual
language and world for the work. From the opening projection of AKT 1, the
guiding spirit is Brecht. The setting is vague, and doesn’t really
matter.  A enormous, dingy cement cube hovers
over a stage filled with water. Some of the action takes place in this box,
some in the water. The box itself moves upstage and down seemingly of its own
accord. Wozzeck and Marie and their son are relatively normal-looking people,
everyone else is a grotesque, white-faced caricature out of Georg  Grosz. The Captain is disgustingly fat and
naked while the doctor wears a contraption similar to the instrument of torture
he straps Wozzeck into. Many of the minor male characters are exactly the same
variation on Frankenstein’s monster. It is, it seems, the world as seen from
Wozzeck’s own eyes, with Marie as the only refuge among the expressionist monsters.
The child oversees much of the action and learns to make
sense of it, writing PAPA over the father who never acknowledges him, later
adding GELD (money) and HURE (whore).  He
is, we can see, going to turn out exactly like the father who ignores him. That
father seems, unlike the oblivious other characters, hyperalert, and yet
entirely uncomprehending. The Personenregie is not particularly musical, at least not in an analytic sense. I doubt Kriegenburg could tell you much about Berg’s symphonic forms, and he seems to care more about Büchner’s fragmentation than Berg’s cohesion. Much of the opera is delivered in a presentational
style, right out to the audience. It’s simultaneously an alienating tactic and
an apt reflection of the characters’ own alienation.  In another Brechtian
touch, the stage music is played by an onstage ensemble in modern concert
dress. A gloomy crowd of black-clad unemployed watch and occasionally provide
physical support to the action, with platforms for the Drum Major and the
orchestra literally on their backs, in a way similar to the Ring supernumeraries.
But it’s a classical staging as well, just as reluctant as
Kriegenburg’s Ring to take on a
specific social context. This is, that is to say, like the first three parts of
his Ring, not the last. The unemployed
in their coats, the water, the blank cement all speak to a timeless, placeless misery. It
operates on a level of simple images that resonate with the music and
story on a deep level. Except for the splashing through the water, there’s
never any friction between the two. It’s not quite as simple as it looks—and I
expect the Personenregie was considerably tighter on the 2008 premiere than
this one-off revival—but simplicity is its greatest asset.
I don’t think Simon Keenlyside has sung in this production
before, but he seemed to fit in well. Vocally, this role is, like much of the music he
sings these days, a size too big for his lyric baritone. When he struggles to
be heard he tends to sound pressured and grainy. But he seems to have the part
in his bones, and makes a twitchy yet disconnected Wozzeck. Waltraud Meier’s
Marie is the only character who seems to have any life left in her, miserable
as she is. Meier’s voice is still very strong in the higher registers, and she
sings this music with passionate earnestness.
Lothar Koenig’s conducting tended towards the beautiful,
tragic side of thinsg, finding its vocal counterpart in Meier’s almost Romantic
Marie. (He seemed very preoccupied with giving cues to everyone, I suspect this
one-off was not so thoroughly rehearsed.) The orchestra played with sustained
intensity that was, at times, just a touch messy, particularly in the winds. As
might be expected, the strings turned in a Mahlerian rendition of the Act III
interlude. The singers of the supporting roles sang more dramatically than
beautifully, but that’s only in fitting with the production. Having endured his
Aegisth twice I am not fan of Wolfgang Schmidt’s yelpy tenor, but for the
Hauptmann it is just right. Roman Sadnik sounded underpowered as the
Tambourmajor, but had a commanding presence, as did Clive Bayley as the Doctor.
Overall I found this production devastating, while the Ring rarely went beyond nicely poignant. The concentrated intensity of Berg and Büchner are perhaps a better match for Kriegenburg’s austerity, and while when staging the Ring a grand historical vision is non-negotiable, in a 90-minute piece it might be too much. I must admit this was my first time seeing Wozzeck live; it is not often played.
(I have hardly avoided it. In college I studied it in music, German, and
theater classes, at one point making me suspect I was actually majoring in Woyzeck/Wozzeck Studies. For comparison,
I didn’t study Lulu once.) This
performance sold out and received a sustained, enthusiastic ovation, heartening
for a work considered so audience-unfriendly. Kriegenburg’s pitch-perfect
production plus local factors (local language, the relative levels of general musical
literacy in Munich versus New York) have made that rare thing: a high art popular

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl. More follow after the video.

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