Tuesday 29 August 2017

Puppets? Yes! Wozzeck Matthias Goerne Salzburg

Alban Berg's Wozzeck  at Salzburg, with Matthias Goerne, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Vienna Philharmoniuc Orchestra, at last on medici.tv.  Goerne's done the role many times in the last 20 years or so, so his approach is authoritative, with searing intensity, so expressive that you almost flinch.  But flinch you should, since that's what makes for a good Wozzeck. When my son went to his first Wozzeck, he heard some in the audience chuckling. "What!" he gasped in exasperation, "If you can come out of this opera without feeling  disturbed, there's something wrong with you". For Berg's Wozzeck is the epitome of Expressionist Angst, a psychodrama that unfurls in multi-level complexity.  It is a howling scream of outrage against a system that dehumanizes and destroys all involved.  Not just Wozzeck, or Marie, but the regimented (in every way) world around them.   Everyone in this opera is a puppet of some kind,  manipulated by some unseen, invisible force beyond their control.

William Kentridge's production was created for the Haus für Mozart, a relatively small, performing space, which must magnify the impact.  On film, however, the physical darkness overwhelms. It's not easy to watch, but well worth the effort because Kentridge's reading is highly perceptive.  The abstraction of the set is disconcerting. It's as if we were within an infernal machine, where things are regulated by clockwork: odd angular planes, horizontals and diagonals, myriad tools and mechanisms.  The Captain is seen, taunting Wozzeck from above.  He's wearing a ceremonial hat and red uniform, his arms waving like a wound-up toy. Gerhard Siegel spat out the words "Haha! Haha!" with maniacal savagery.  So he's not being shaved?  Wozzeck (Matthias Goerne)  is seen bent over, grinding away.  Then you realize why the Captain's cloak is blood red.  Parallel realities, psychological truth.

Berg was writing at a time when psychological theories entranced the public imagination, and cinema was quick to capitalize on its ability to present multiple-level visual and emotional effects.  Berg, a keen movie goer,  incorporated new ideas into his score. The orchestral interludes operate like curtain changes, keeping the action swift even when drastic changes of scene are taking place.  Wozzeck exits whatever room he's been in with the Captain, into a maze of shadows, the path ahead of him narrow and skewed in zig zag form - an image which could come straight from a 20's silent movie.   Suddenly we're in the surreal world of the reed beds, where Wozzeck and Andres (Mauro Peter) are collecting reeds for fuel. The contraptions on their backs are the kind of baskets used by woodcutters in the past, which incidentally resemble straitjackets. Though we don't see the reedbeds, we sense they're there on either side of the narrow path, waiting to suck the men in and drown them. The orchestra growls ominous menace, timpani pounding, the gloom lit by will o' the wisps of high woodwind, suggesting surreal spirits.  Goerne's voice rises spookily from the darkness "Still, alles still, als wäre die Welt tot!"

The orchestra heralds another change of scene:  Marie is glimpsed, alone with her child, here seen as a puppet. And why not? Berg portrayed the child as nameless, unformed without a voice of his own, an observer of horrors who will quite possibly grow up to act out the dehumanization around him all over again.  The puppet wears a gas mask, and the puppeteer the uniform of a field nurse.  It's utterly relevant, since Berg experienced horrors in a military hospital during the First World War. The system was sick, the hospital palliative, not focused on cure.   There are many who object to the employment of a real child in the part, but there's something wrong with the kind of viewer who doesn't want a kid to witness sex.   Why not get angry about the fact that millions of kids grow up abused and neglected in reality all round us?  Perhaps Wozzeck grew up in such conditions. The cyclical nature of Berg's idiom makes it clear that cycles go on, unbroken, like the palindromes in the music.

The Drum Major (John Daszak) fascinated Marie (Asmik Grigorian) and Margret (Frances Pappas) because he seems to embody another, more glamorous world than their own. Yet he, too, is a puppet, strutting and marching in formation.  Though Marie loves her child and tries to amuse him with songs, she can't break out of the pattern of inept parenting she probably experienced herself.   Goerne's voice with its rich depth suggests more warmth and basic decency than the role strictly speaking provides, but this household isn't Happy Families.

Kentridge's staging suggests how Wozzeck seems to live his life struggling between one box and another.  Goerne sits passively while the Doctor ( Jens Larsen) prods and pokes him in the name of crackpot science. "Ah....." sings  Goerne, his voice almost rising to falsetto, suggesting pain and muffled protest.  Interestingly, Marie cries almost as shrilly before she succumbs to the Drum Major.  Moments later, she's singing fairy tales, as if nothing's happened.  The puppet, however, expresses pathos, crumpling into immobility, like a child shutting out trauma.  The Doctor and the Captain converse, but they, too, are in a psychic hell of delusion. Officers, but still puppets acting out roles they can't otherwise fill.  In comparison, Wozzeck is sane. "Man könnte Lust bekommen, sich aufzuhängen! Dann wüsste man, woran man ist!" sings Goerne, but the Captain and doctor think it's a joke.

A momentary glimpse of another puppet-child, dressed in white like the Drum Major, marching while the men in the barracks carouse.  Yet again, Berg contrasts horror with mindless banality: boozy drinking songs and the cry of the Madman  (Heinz Göhrig) the first to sense blood.   Fabulous ensemble singing - Goerne's voice rising above the ghostly sounds in the chorus.  The confrontation between the Drum Major and Wozzeck is brutal, trumpets blazing, staccato percussion, like gunfire. 
Grigorian's tiny, her voice more shrill than most Maries, so in comparison with Goerne, she's like a fragile child.  He towers over her, like a father figure, a chilling image, suggestingb that both of them were brutalized, too, in the past.  Two tiny figures in a vast landscape oif abstract black and grey with flashes of red light, like thunder (in recognition of Berg's original stage directions). The "curtain" falls in a cataclysmic scream in the orchestra, horns ablaze.   But Goerne dominates, in every way, singing with exceptional character, better even than in the past.  "Das Wassser ist Blut ! Blut!"  The Doctor and Captain, yet again, retreat in denial.

Atmosopheric playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, decidedly "more" than a Strauss orchestra. Jurowski's years of experience as an opera conductor pay off well. The harsh dissonance and swirling strings scream horror, yet also elegy.  At last we see some semblance of scenery, but it's not natural. The pool shines, but it's surrounded by broken uprights. Is it a bomb crater filled with rain and mud?  Magnificent, malevolent video projections to match the intensity in the music. One screen shows a figure - neither male nor female - relentlessly walking.  Thus Berg ends with the song "Ringel, Ringel, Rosenkranz, Ringelreih'n!"  It is a round, yet another typically Bergian palindrome. The children's voices sound innocent but the message is sinister.  The puppet child rides a hobby horse, as mentioned in the libretto, but this time, it's made from a crutch.  The children's voices are heard from offstage. "Du ! Deinn Mutter ist tod!" they cry, cruelly. The puppet is truly alone trapped in his own dimension.  He listens, then bends his little head desolate and crestfallen.,  He may be made of wood, but he has more humanity than most of the other characters in this bleakest of operas.
William Kentridge | Stage director, Luc De Wit | Co-stage director,Sabine Theunissen | Stage sets,
Greta Goiris | Costumes, Catherine Meyburgh | Video editor, Urs Schönebaum | Lighting, Kim Gunning | Video operator

Matthias Goerne | Wozzeck, John Daszak | Drum Major, Mauro Peter | Andres, Gerhard Siegel | Captain, Jens Larsen | Doctor, Tobias Schabel | First Apprentice, Huw Montague Rendall | Second Apprentice, Heinz Göhrig | Madman, Asmik Grigorian | Marie, Frances Pappas | Margret
Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor, Wolfgang Götz | Chorus director, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Ernst Raffelsberger | Chorus director

 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski | Conductor

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