Zurich Opera’s Wozzeck  ̶  Stark, Brutal, Transcendent

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Berg: Wozzeck, Soloists, Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Fabio Luisi (conductor), Zurich Opera, 25.09.2015 (RP)

Wozzeck: Christian Gerhaher/Martin Winkler
Drum Major: Brandon Jovanovich
Andreas: Mauro Peterf
Captain: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Doctor: Lars Woldt
1st Apprentice: Pavel Daniluk
2nd Apprentice: Cheyne Davidson
Fool: Martin Zysset
Marie: Gun-Brit Barkmin
Margret: Irène Friedli
Marie’s son: Alessandro Reinhart
Soldier: Tae-Jin Park


Producer: Andreas Homoki
Stage and Costume Design: Michael Levine
Lighting Design: Franck Evin
Chorus Master: Jürg Hämmerli
Dramaturgy: Kathrin Brunner


The most striking thing about Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, upon which Alban Berg based his opera, is that it is as real today as it was in 1837 when he penned it. Büchner’s characters are all from the working class, with Woyzeck at the bottom of the heap and the only half-decent human among the lot, seeking to support his family by any means possible, no matter how demeaning or soul destroying. His bleak existence is undermined by everyone he encounters. When his prostitute lover Marie turns him into a cuckold with the vain, self-obsessed Drum Major, he becomes totally unhinged, slitting her throat and committing suicide. Such tales are daily fodder for today’s global media.

Zurich Opera’s Wozzeck is an extraordinarily complete operatic realization. The production and casting were superb, but it was Fabio Luisi and the Philharmonia Zurich that left the most indelible impression. Whether it was the slashing sound of the brasses or the softest, most tender, lyrical passages, the music that emerged from the pit was transcendent. The final interlude that leads into the bleakest of all endings in opera (the now-orphaned boy trailing behind the other children to view his mother’s corpse) was magnificent in its searing intensity.

Andreas Homoki’s production is a combination of the brutally realistic and the grotesque. His Wozzeck is all too human and fragile, surrounded by monstrous people. Marie is an exception  ̶  she does have pangs of awareness that Wozzeck is a good man  ̶  but with such a bleak existence, opportunism is the only path she can pursue. Büchner and Berg do not shy away from brutal sexuality, nor does Homoki. This has nothing to do with advancing the plot, as it is the plot: screw or get screwed.

The personification of this ethos is the Drum Major, a preening, leonine figure intent solely on procreation. Brian Jovanovich’s Drum Major was a giant comic-book character, whose visage and grimace were clearly inspired by the Joker in Batman. He strutted about with an oversized baton stuck between his legs, his virility obvious to all. He coarsely takes Marie from behind with hard rhythmic thrusts in time to the music, surrounded by leering spectators  ̶  each driving a nail into Wozzeck’s brain.

Michael Levine’s set in cadmium yellow and black was as bleak as the characters that inhabited it. The set functioned much like an old-fashioned camera, with yellow frames that expanded, contracted and closed to intensify and focus the drama. Wozzeck’s final harrowing ascent was to the smallest of the openings through which he disappeared. Crowd scenes were played out on various levels, with Wozzeck almost always at the bottom, as when Marie was being ravaged by the Drum Major above him. Wozzeck and Marie were the only two characters to set foot outside the box, but just for brief moments when their humanity was most evident. Otherwise, all were kept within the confines of their narrow slice of society  ̶  truly in the box.  

The starkness was broken, but hardly alleviated, by a lurid magenta, which was the color of Marie’s hair, the Drum Major’ beard and the plume on his towering hat, and the Captain’s sash and the cockade on his Napoleonic bicorne. The characters’ eyes and lips were smeared with the same magenta. Costumes were realistic and scaled according to the power structure in this confined segment of society, especially the head gear: contrast the townsmen’s black top hats and the Drum Major’s headpiece with the simple caps of Wozzeck and his fellow soldiers. The latter wore drab grey uniforms with panels of dusty yellow. Add stripes and they could have been prison uniforms or those of internees in a concentration camp.

The cast was uniformly excellent. Gun-Brit Barkmin’s clear soprano easily negotiated Berg’s demanding vocal lines and cut through the orchestra with ease. Her reading of the story of Mary Magdalene from the Bible was particularly effective due to her use of Sprechstimme. I wanted to hear more of Brandon Jovanovich who is such a fine actor and singer. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, as the Captain under whose constant criticism Wozzeck withers, and Lars Woldt as the Doctor, who pays Wozzeck to be his lab rat in dietary experiments, were brilliant dramatically and vocally. Homoki gets high praise for the carefully delineated characterizations that he first imagined and then was able to bring to life with this cast.

It was great opera even with Christian Gerhaher, as the title character, ill and unable to sing the full performance. He was on stage the entire time, but Martin Winkler sang the demanding final passages after Marie’s murder from a box high above. The solution was less than ideal but surprisingly did little harm. There is no need to comment on Gerhaher’s vocal contribution, but his skills as an actor and his physicality were on full display. I envy the audiences that experienced him in his full vocal state earlier in the run.  

After the performance my companion observed, “I was trying to determine who came out on top in this performance, as it was just all so good. My vote goes to Luisi and the orchestra, but really it was Berg.” The Zurich team gets it right once again.

Rick Perdian

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