William Kentridge’s Met Wozzeck pits Berg’s timeless characters against a backdrop of the First World War

United StatesUnited States Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 11.1.2020. (JPr)

Peter Mattei (Wozzeck) and Elza van den Heever (Marie)
(c) Ken Howard/Met Opera


Production – William Kentridge
Co-Director – Luc De Wit
Projection designer – Catherine Meyburgh
Set designer – Sabine Theunissen
Costume designer – Greta Goiris
Lighting designer – Urs Schönebaum


Marie – Elza van den Heever
Margret – Tamara Mumford
Drum-Major – Christopher Ventris
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Andres – Andrew Staples
Wozzeck – Peter Mattei
Doctor – Christian Van Horn

Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host – Eric Owens

In 1935 Alban Berg – rather like Gustav Mahler almost a quarter of the century previously – died too early with a musical life that remained unfulfilled. His first opera Wozzeck had been premièred in 1925 but a second (Lulu) was still unfinished at the time of his death. Berg was an early disciple of Mahler, and his widow Alma became a champion of Berg’s compositions. So it is to her that Wozzeck is dedicated, and Alma underwrote Berg’s printing of the score by Universal Edition. One of his last compositions was the Violin Concerto written in memory of the death of young Manon Gropius, Alma’s daughter by her second marriage.

William Kentridge’s Wozzeck production was premiered at the 2017 Salzburg Festival, and pits Berg’s timeless characters against a backdrop of the First World War. Indeed it is possible to establish a close connection between Wozzeck and the Great War, even if that war itself was not the direct reason for Berg setting Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck – a straight play – to music. However, it was in May 1914 – one month after the 29-year-old composer was called up for his army medical and deemed unfit – that Berg went to the play’s first performance in Vienna and was inspired to create his opera. The first sketches for the music were quickly written, though it was not finished until 1922 and it did not receive its world premiere until December 1925. The crux of the story is the humiliation and destruction of a soldier – here emotionally and psychologically scarred by the horrors of war – who finally completely loses the plot and in a jealous rage murders Marie, the mother of his child, before drowning near the end of the opera.

It is Wozzeck’s death that fixed in my mind the strong musical connection between Berg’s opera and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. I was reminded of the saying someone told me once about how – in his opinion – a musicologist is someone who can read music but cannot hear it. How true that is I will leave others to decide, but I know that even though I cannot read music I have realised for some time how I can appreciate musical connections others often miss. I understand Britten had wanted to study composition with Berg and the influence of Wozzeck is obvious throughout Peter Grimes particularly in the use of interludes, onstage band, as well as, the hauntingly eerie calm in the music after the Act II death of Grimes’s apprentice and when he sinks his own boat at the very end. (The latter takes its inspiration from what we hear as the Captain and the Doctor pass by the pond where Wozzeck has drowned.) However unlike Britten’s bleakly compelling Grimes with its otherwise normal English fishing village community, Wozzeck is more expressionistic with everyone crazy from the get-go, which – coming full circle – could reflect Berg’s personal reaction to the First World War.

In the theatre Kentridge’s visual extravaganza must have been rather discomfiting at times with his eclectic mix of Catherine Meyburgh’s charcoal sketches, animation, and live action, projected on Sabine Theunissen’s huge sets consisting of walkways, up, down, and across. (Thankfully Gary Halvorson’s direction for the cinema broadcast focused – more often than not – on dramatic closeups of the singers’ faces.) The animation bordered on the farcical at times and often reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s cut-outs for Monty Python’s Flying Circus; though the overall effect was of a greyscale dystopian nightmarish world bringing to mind – because of all the barbed wire and gas masks we see – the trenches or No Man’s Land of the First World War.

Wozzeck’s humiliation is clearly shown and his descent into madness through being bullied and cuckolded is vividly portrayed. Peter Mattei’s Wozzeck elicits a certain amount of sympathy as he has the demeanour of the survivor of a poison gas attack. (My mind retreated several years, and I was reminded of the much put-upon Dave Boyle – as portrayed by Tim Robbins – fighting his demons in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.) Perhaps it was deliberate and not just tiredness but Mattei, in his role debut, rarely seemed to sing as we would normally expect and his approach – as heard through cinema loudspeakers – was rarely more than Sprechstimme. I didn’t remember this so much from the previous interpreters of the role I had seen and heard (Matthias Goerne and John Reuter). Nevertheless, his descent through shame into despair, rage, and violence, was totally convincing.

Elza van den Heever – in another role debut – was Wozzeck’s ‘tart with a heart’, Marie, and she was in fine voice and created a real person the audience could identify with; someone so very sad and lonely that she would fall prey to the Drum Major’s ‘charms’. However, her son – who is a pivotal figure in this story and ‘looks on’ some of the events as they unfold before eventually being left alone at the end – is now a mind-bogglingly depersonalised bunraku puppet in a gas mask. Elsewhere Berg’s music – which requires tremendous vocal agility – sorely tested some of the experienced cast who nevertheless tackled it quite fearlessly. Gerhard Siegel’s Captain struggled valiantly with the tessitura to little avail. Much better was Christian Van Horn’s impressive evil doctor (or Doctor Evil?) with whom the Captain constantly bickers. Amongst the other solid cameo performances Christopher Ventris’s Drum Major stood out because he sang and acted with just the right degree of lasciviousness.

It just seemed a pity that at end of the performance I was left feeling rather cold and unmoved by what I had seen: the only real pathos I experienced was through Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s exceptionally restless, intense, and committed account of Berg’s strident score, fully supported – as is to be expected – by his wonderful Met Orchestra.

Jim Pritchard

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