A Less Than Complete Picture of Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival



Salzburg Festival [5] – Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Choir (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz), Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 14.8.2017. (MB)

Regie : WILLIAM KENTRIDGE ; CO-Regieb:  Luc De Wit Bühne : Sabine Theunissen ; Kostüme : Greta Goiris ; Video Compositor & Editor : Catherine  Meyburgh Licht :  Urs  Schönebaum ; Video Operator : Kim Gunnings

William Kentridge’s <i.Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival (c) Salzburg Festival /Ruth Walz


Wozzeck – Matthias Goerne
Drum Major – John Daszak
Andres – Mauro Peter
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Doctor – Jens Larsen
First Apprentice – Tobias Schnambel
Second Apprentice – Huw Montague Rendall
Fool – Heinz Göhrig
Marie – Asmik Grigorian
Margret – Frances Pappas
Chorus solo – Burkhard Höft
Actors – Mélissa Guex, Andrea Fabi
Mimes – Claudia Carus, Gregor Schulz


William Kentridge (director)
Luc De Wit (co-director)
Sabine Theunissen (set deigns)
Greta Goiris (costumes)
Catherine Meyburgh (video)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Kim Gunning (video operator)

Salzburg is certainly doing William Kentridge proud this summer: a new production of Wozzeck and an exhibition of his work, ‘Thick Time: Installations and Stagings’, split between the Rupertinum and the museum on the Mönchsberg, which together form the Museum der Moderne. The exhibition has also been seen at the Whitechapel Gallery; I missed it there. It will also be seen – or has: I am not quite sure which – at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk and Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. The exhibition is certainly well worth seeing for its own sake. In some ways, though, I found it more revealing than the opera production itself, which I could not help but think relied a little too much upon an imposed association with the First World War – a little too easy? – and indeed upon figures and ideas from his earlier work. Both claims are, I am sure, debatable, but I was left relatively unmoved by the result – which is surely a problem with Wozzeck.

Distancing can doubtless work in different ways for different people. One person’s chilling alienation will be another’s ‘I could not relate to that’. For me, however – and I can hardly speak for anyone else – the device of placing Wozzeck outside the action, having him in some sense present it, at the opening switching on the slide projector from which so much of the setting is presented, leads to a staging more observed than experienced. If we do not share Wozzeck’s agonies, his mistreatment, if it is not even entirely clear whether he actually experiences them, then that is surely something of a loss. What worked very well in Kentridge’s Lulu, which I saw at ENO, seems here to be more a matter of going through the motions; what had been a powerful impression of information overload mirroring, even intensifying the score, here reduced to a display of battlefield maps with little evident motivation other than the fact that the Battle of Ypres had taken place a hundred years ago. Charcoal drawings, long a Kentridge staple, seemed just a little dark to glean anything much from, at least at a certain distance from the stage. (I was in the First Circle.) What of looking back to such events from after the war, as Berg did when completing it? There is certainly something to be said for that in principle; yet here, it comes across as more of a device than a dramatic strategy.

Perhaps ultimately, the problem, at least for me, is Kentridge’s apparent lack of interest in psychology, as discussed in a programme interview: ‘I never start with the psychology,’ he says, ‘When a singer says to me, “what am I thinking?’ I say, “well, let’s listen to the music and let’s look at what we see on stage rather than giving a pre-history’. It is not clear to me why there should be an either-or. Surely part of that ‘pre-history’ lies in the music and indeed in what happens on stage; nor is ‘the music’ somehow something separate from the drama and its associations, certainly not in Berg. ‘Characters are always more than you expect and different from what you expect,’ Kentridge goes on. Of course. Here, however, especially in the case of Marie, they seem, if anything, less than one had expected. Marie comes across as somewhat peripheral to the action, or at least to the wartime setting that threatens to overwhelm the action. Most of us, I hope, are opposed to war; still more of us think the Great War was a terrible thing. But is Wozzeck really about that; or, better, should it be? The weird, powerful crowd scenes, with marauding deformed survivors give a taste of what might have been, suggesting that yes, Wozzeck could be about this, and in retrospect too; the necessary contrasting, developing character introspection, however, seems strangely absent. Substituting a puppet for a child again seems too much of a stock device. Do we really want to avoid being shattered by his fate?

That said, an impressive aspect of the evening as a total artwork – Gesamtkunstwerk, if you must – was that Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting seemed to me very much in keeping with Kentridge’s approach. One heard a wealth of detail, of musical process from the players of the Vienna Philharmonic, indeed to such an extent that any listener with musical training would be well placed to identify the particular closed form of any scene immediately. That was, famously, not Berg’s point, but that does not mean that there is no value in hearing the score differently, quite the contrary. What I missed from Jurowski’s conducting was a stronger sense of how the scenes connected; again, this need not be an either-or situation, and preferably should not be. Berg remains a son, or perhaps grandson, of Wagner – or should do.

Was there also a sense that he was keeping the excellent Vienna players – what sweetness of string tone in particular! – down? I suspect it may have depended upon where one was seated in the Haus für Mozart (the old Kleines Festspielhaus). For me, there were many occasions when I longed for the orchestra to be let off the leash. It is not just during the interludes that the real, the deepest drama lies there; as with Wagner, it always does. Others, however, complained that they could not hear the singers, which certainly was not the case for me. Matthias Goerne did a good deal to supply some of the introspection seemingly missing from the staging. A Lieder-singer’s approach tends to be just the thing for Wozzeck, if not necessarily the only way; this was no exception. Asmik Grigorian sang beautifully, a fine Marie, by any standards. If only the staging had not left her somewhat marooned: just standing there, singing, seemingly having to act for herself. John Daszak navigated well the balance between character and caricature in the role of the Drum Major. Gerhard Siegel and Jens Larsen both offered keenly observed – insofar as they were permitted – performances as the Captain and the Doctor. Frances Pappas’s Marget greatly impressed, as, still more, did Mauro Peter’s beautifully sung Andres; in both cases, I was left wishing they had had more to do. Choral singing was excellent, impeccably well prepared, it seemed, by Ernst Raffelsberger. If I did not feel that I had been moved as much, nor as deeply, as I should have been, it was no fault of the cast. And I was certainly made to think.

Mark Berry

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  1. As a Wozzeck fan and someone who enjoyed Kentridge’s two previous Met productions, I was disappointed in this detached – almost “mechanized” interpretation of the opera. It was as if Kentridge’s attitude to Wozzeck was as unfeeling as the Doctor’s and the Captain’s.

    Although The Nose and Lulu were enhanced being staged before constantly moving backgrounds -The Nose is a bounce and Lulu is fast and cruel – Wozzeck is an emotional work that includes a lyrical voice – that of the orchestra. I would have appreciated visual peace when the orchestra was singing.

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