Wozzeck at Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin, Staatsopernchor Berlin, Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Schillertheater, Berlin, 16.4.2011 (MB)

Wozzeck – Roman Trekel

Drum Major – John Daszak

Andres – Florian Hoffmann

Captain – Graham Clark

Doctor – Pavlo Hunka

Marie – Nadja Michael

Margret – Katharina Kammerloher

First Apprentice – Jürgen Linn

Second Apprentice – James Homann

Idiot – Heinz Zednik

Marie’s Child – Fabian Sturm

Andrea Breth (director)

Martin Zehetgruber (stage designs)

Silke Willrett, Marc Weeger (costumes)

Olaf Freese (lighting)

Jens Schroth (dramaturgy)

Staatskapelle Berlin

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)

Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

PIcture Courtesy of Staatsoper Under Den Linden

Though it was the first opera I saw in the theatre – bar a reduced Don Giovanni – it had been quite a while since I had seen a staged performance of Wozzeck, most likely the greatest of all twentieth-century operas. Certainly its stature seems somehow to grow with every hearing. Keith Warner’s Covent Garden production had its detractors, but I thought it in many respects impressive. Andrea Breth, in her first production for the Berlin State Opera, presented a more ‘faithful’ reading, but fidelity should not be confused in this instance with lack of commitment. It was indeed in the cases where she presented a different interpretation from that suggested in libretto and score that the production seemed weaker. In what came across – even if it were not intended this way – as a strangely misogynistic reading, Marie’s inner conflict was minimised: she did not appear to struggle at all with her conscience in the context of the Drum-Major’s advances, and indeed submitted a few inches away from her son, in full view of him. (I did wonder, without being prudish, whether this was really something appropriate for a child to witness, though I have no reason to think that Fabian Sturm’s fear was not acted.) Moreover, not having Marie read from the Bible, but simply recall it from memory, eliminated an important point that she has struggled to attain literacy. Margret, meanwhile, seemed merely a tart, and a paralytic one at that. The other odd decision was to have Wozzeck, presumably dead, tell his son that his mother was dead; no other children were on stage, their rhyme being delivered from the pit. Presumably a point about the cyclical nature of the tragedy was being made, but the chilling nature of children’s callous insouciance was lost.

Otherwise, the oppressive nature of an inhuman society was portrayed starkly. There could be no doubt that the singers had been properly directed, a welcome contrast with the previous night’s Salome at the Komische Oper. Actions and scene changes were well choreographed throughout in a thoroughly professional display. Martin Zehetgruber’s dark stage designs were simple, unfussy, and always apt. Militarism was present, as it should be, but never overplayed. The form it takes is, after all, a product of capitalist society, not its cause. The same could and should be said of the Doctor’s nasty experiments and his lust for bourgeois renown. As for the miserable depravity of proletarian life, whether in the barracks or for Marie, ‘wir arme Leut’ indeed… But never were such broader themes, undoubtedly present in the work itself, trumpeted over and above it: this was Berg’s Wozzeck, not, with the exceptions outlined above, Andrea Breth’s.

Daniel Barenboim was on excellent form in the pit, likewise the Staatskapelle Berlin. I might have expected a more overtly ‘Wagnerian’ reading, but then Barenboim’s Wagner has always been more variegated than many seem to think, and his Berg followed suit. There were power and punch when required, which of course includes the wrenching D minor climax of the final Interlude: tonality aufgehoben in a way Schoenberg may sometimes have attempted but never quite accomplished. (Webern never tried.) Not once was there any doubt as to Barenboim’s command of line, but equally impressive were an ear for colour surely born of his experience in French music, not least Debussy, and his characterisation of the closed forms and genres of which the greater structure is composed.

Roman Trekel’s was one of the best performances I have heard him give, a great improvement upon his disappointing Eugene Onegin, on a par with his fine Doktor Faust. The dryness that has sometimes affected his voice was not at all in evidence on the present occasion. His was not an overtly emotional Wozzeck, not perhaps as searching nor as terrifying as Matthias Goerne’s, but Trekel’s Lieder-singer attention to detail paid dividends nevertheless. Nadja Michael gave her all as Marie. At her best, she is a fine singing actress; here, her vocal power proved generally as impressive as her stage presence. It would have been good to have had more of the right notes, but she is far from the only singer in this role to stand guilty in that respect. The Captain is a role made for a Mime such as Graham Clark; he did not disappoint, nor did Pavlo Hunka in the dangerous, deranged role of the Doctor. John Daszak, replete with plastic muscles, made a virile thug indeed of the Drum-Major, though never at the expense of musical values. Florian Hoffmann proved fair of voice indeed as Andres, as well as convincing on stage: this is clearly a young singer to watch. And finally, it was a genuinely moving pleasure to welcome back Heinz Zednik to the stage in a typically finely observed performance as the Idiot. But the whole was so much more than the sum of the parts: a description of performance as well as work.

Lulu will follow during next year’s Festtage, again conducted by Barenboim and directed by Breth. Barenboim said at a press conference a couple of days later that he hopes to conduct both works over a number of weekends, to allow visitors to experience a Berlin ‘Berg Weekend’, a mouth-watering prospect indeed.

Mark Berry