Wozzeck in Madrid: Better the Last Time

SpainSpain Berg: Wozzeck, Teatro Real Orchestra and Chorus, Sylvain Cambreling (conductor), Madrid Teatro Real, 3.6.2013 (JMI).


Wozzeck: Simon Keenlyside
Marie: Nadja Michael
Drum Major: Jon Villars
Captain: Gerhard Siegel
Doctor: Franz Hawlata
Margret: Katarina Brodic
Andres: Roger Padullés
A Fool: Francisco Vas
First Apprentice: Scott Wilde
Second Apprentice: Tomeu Bibiloni

Opera National de Paris
Direction: Christoph Marthaler
Sets and costumes: Anna Viebrock
Lighting: Olaf Winter

Wozzeck at Teatro Royal, Madrid
Javier Real :Photograph

These days, opera houses usually try to offer a balanced program, with mainstream repertoire mixing with more unusual works to ensure that box office takings are maintained. It seems, however, that this not the policy in Madrid following the arrival of Gerard Mortier as its artistic director. Instead he seems to be interested in programming according to his own taste rather than to those of his customers.

I’m not complaining about it. It is just a fact.

Wozzeck is considered a key title in the history of opera, but it has never been a favorite among opera goers in this part of the world. One only has to look at the statistics to see that in southern Europe it fails to achieve popularity. There can be no doubt that this is a work that a first class opera house must offer, but it is curious that it is on again in Madrid, when only six years have passed since it was last on the stage of the Teatro Real. Very few operas, if any, have been repeated in this house in such a short period of time.

Because of the economic restrictions on every opera house it is unusual to see new productions when an old one is already available. We are not living through times which encourage the waste of money. However, the Teatro Real seems to live in a different world, since for this revival of Wozzeck they have not offered their own production by Calixto Bieito from 2007, but they have brought Christoph Marthaler’s production, premiered by Gerard Mortier himself in Paris in 2008. I will not discuss here the quality of both stage productions, but just note the fact. As an opera lover, I enjoy seeing productions unknown to me, but I guess that the cost has to be taken from somewhere, since miracles do not exist and Mr. Mortier is not a magician.

So, the stage production offered by the Teatro Real bears the signature of Christoph Marthaler, and was premiered at La Bastille in 2008, when Mortier was director of the Opera National de Paris, and later revived by Nicolas Joel in his first year in office at the same institution. Like many of the works of the Swiss director, it has very careful direction of actors and groups, although ultimately the production does not quite convince. Wozzeck is not an opera well suited to an stage-setting which is shown as a kind of bar, where Wozzeck works as waiter. In this bar he shaves the Captain, and he goes to the Doctor’s office; it is also the home of Marie and you have to figure out that we are in a forest for the murder scene. Since so much is left to the imagination, I wonder if we would not have been better off with a concert version – which would also have the advantage of being cheaper, even for the audience.

The costumes are well suited. The lighting could be improved.

As I said above, the stage direction is quite good and the characters are mostly convincing, but my preference remains with Calixto Bieito’s production, which was more powerful and overwhelming than this one and would have been more appropriate to the reading of the opera from the pit.

The musical direction was in the hands of Sylvain Cambreling, who gave a convincing reading of the opera, in a dramatic style. M. Cambreling always gives the best of himself in 20th century operas and I think that his conducting was the best he has offered in Madrid, together with that of Saint François d’Assise. I missed an element of lyricism and sometimes there was exccessive orchestral volume, which created a few problems for the singers. In any case, it was a remarkable musical version, with an outstanding performance from the orchestra.

If Gerard Mortier is very predictable in his choice of music and stage directors, this is no less apparent in his casting, which always shows a remarkable fidelity to his favorite singing-actors – although one can understand certain decisions on his part, as in the cases of Marie, the Drum Major or the Doctor.

Simon Keenlyside is one of the top baritones today and he has taken his Wozzeck to the top opera houses in the world. I had the opportunity to admire his performance in this character last year in Munich. His stage interpretation remains fully convincing, but vocally I found him rather disappointing. The voice did not run with the ease which we are used to and he had trouble reaching the audience during the first part of the opera. Recognizing his unquestionable quality, I think his voice might be too light for the character in purely vocal terms.

Nadja Michael is one of the sopranos preferred by modern stage directors, being a great actress, with an enviable figure. Of course, her stage performance was fully convincing in the character of Marie. Vocally, as is usual in the case of this singer, things did not go the same way, with sounds bordering on shouting at the top.

Jon Villars was the Drum Major at the premiere of this production in Paris. Mr. Villars has always been amongst the artists preferred by Mr. Mortier. There were years when his imposing figure and his baritonal tenor made him a reference as Bacchus, but this was in the past, and today he has the figure but little else.

Gerhard Siegel was a well suited Captain. He is always right in these character roles.

Franz Hawlata is also part of Mr. Mortier’s trouppe. He has always been a good actor and he still is. His voice is limited, weak at the bottom and whitish at the top.

The Teatro Real did not reach more than 90% of its capacity. The final reception was warm, with the greatest applause for Simon Keenlyside. There were some boos for the creative team.

José Mª. Irurzun