Alban Berg Wozzeck from Amsterdam last week, Markus Stenz conducting, with Florian Boesch, an outstanding Wozzeck. Boesch's characterization reveals great insight. This Wozzeck is far more complex than a nobody, so browbeaten that he becomes more animal than man. That's a perfectly valid approach, and one which lends itself to surprising psychological development. Wozzeck is "the common man" but the common man isn't necessarily mindless, or psychotic (as Wozzeck might well be). The natural majesty in Boesch's timbre lends itself to a portrayal as powerful as a force of nature. The intensity in his voice suggests great strength, pressures building up like magma, held in check by hard geological forces. When the tectonic plates fissure, Wozzeck explodes. When he kills, the murder is more to do with himself than with Marie. At the end we hear "Ringlien, Ringlein, Rosenkranz". Are cyclic forces destined to come round again? Or have we learned through the process of listening, that the insanity of the Doctor and the Captain is an excuse for evil ?
Boesch's Wozzeck is powerful, too, because he can suggest the fragility in Wozzeck's mind, its fundamental fractures audible in the quiet moments as in the outbursts. When Boesch sings Wozzeck's brief moment of self assertion " Wir arme Leute......Geld ! Geld!", his voice takes on a steely edge though the lines are delivered with leaden resignation. Even the Captain picks up that Wozzeck is "eine guter Mensch.... Aber er denkt zu viel, das zehrt." The Drum Major and Marie just act: Wozzeck in his confused way is trapped by his thoughts. Boesch's Wozzeck thinks, for sure, since intelligence is the hallmark of Boesch's style. He's a man for whom being superficial would be a moral affront. In the scene where Wozzeck and Andres are cutting reeds in the bog, Wozzeck sees mushrooms. Boesch sings with rapturous, though strange beauty: to Wozzeck, the mushrooms are supernatural miracles.
In his own inarticulate way, Wozzeck is an artist, who can intuit things others cannot see. He's loyal to Marie though she's not too bright, her emotional range limited to formulaic homilies. The snatches of pseudo folk song and the "jaunty" choruses are there for a purpose, but not, I think, to suggest pastoral innocence. Perhaps they are Berg's way of saying that "romantic" escapism is a form of servility which fools "poor people" into accepting their lot. Berg's writing is too precise, and structured so deliberately that the strictness of the symmetry is very much part of meaning. This music operates like an invisible mechanism, controlling the narrative just as circumstances control the people trapped in the isolated garrison. Hence the tight discipline of Stenz's conducting. The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest play dance with tense, bristling energy. Marches and dances are exercises in formation. Let the momentum slip and things fall apart.
Boesch and Stenz first did Wozzeck together in 2011 in Cologne, from which the photo above was taken (copyright Bernd Uhlig) so there's an electricity between them that animates this concert performance so it feels like drama. The dynamic is so strong that I hope they'll be doing further full productions. In Amsterdam last week, Nathan Berg sang the Doctor, a role he's done before and does extremely well. Berg's voice crackles with menace. His words may seem rational. The character clearly is not. Thomas Piffka sang the Captain, Asmik Grigorian sang Marie, Endrik Wottrich the Drum Major and Peter Tantsits Andre.
Also available at the moment is Wozzeck from Zurich, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Christian Gerhaher in the title role. Last October, Luisi brought this to London in concert performance, with Leigh Melrose stepping in. Please read my review here. . Luisi was new to Wozzeck, but conducted brilliantly: proof that technical excellence allows great freedom of expression. The Zurich production has a very good cast (wonderful Doctor/Captain) and a much better Marie) but the staging doesn't help. In principle, the idea is OK : a puppet theatre with the singers as puppets. In practice, that means wooden acting. The singers become caricatured stereotypes. Gerhaher in particular becomes a cipher. Gerhaher in particular becomes a cipher, the portrayal too anonymous to compensate for a voice which is a bit of the generic side for a role as quirky as Wozzeck.