A musically intense and dramatic performance of Wozzeck in Paris

FranceFrance Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Maîtrise des-Hauts-de Seine/Children’s Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Gaël Darchen), Chorus (chorus master: Ching-Lien Wu) and Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris / Susanna Mälkki (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 13.3.2022. (MB)

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Marie) (c) Agathe Pouteney/OnP

Director – William Kentridge
Co-director – Luc De Wit
Set designs – Sabine Theunissen
Costumes – Greta Goiris
Video – Catherine Meyburgh
Lighting – Urs Schönebaum
Video operator – Kim Gunning

Wozzeck – Johan Reuter
Drum Major – John Daszak
Andres – Tansel Akzeybek
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Doctor – Falk Struckmann
First Apprentice – Mikhail Timoshenko
Second Apprentice – Tobias Westman
Fool – Heinz Göhrig
Marie – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Margret – Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur
Soldier – Vincent Morell
Actors – Nathalie Baunaure, Fitzgerald Berthon, Andrea Fabi, Manon Lheureux

Four-and-a-half years ago (review click here), I saw William Kentridge’s then new Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival. I found myself somewhat nonplussed by its more distanced, alienating aspects, thinking them better suited to Kentridge’s Lulu (seen the year before, at ENO). For whatever reason, I found them less of a problem and, in many respects, less apparent in this move to Paris than I had in Salzburg. Why might that have been? Such a question is necessarily speculative, since one never knows how much one is comparing like with like, but I do not think that invalidates the question. Part of the difference may simply have lain with my reception; having spent more time not only experiencing but thinking about contemporary theatre, musical and otherwise, I am probably now more receptive to more distanced approaches. I was also nearer the stage, which, given a staging that was dark in hue and involved quite intricate video projections, was a definite advantage, probably not to be ignored. But I think this was also a more intense musical and dramatic performance, offering greater emotional and psychological depth, enabling a more productive balance between distance and immediacy, to the benefit of both.

Connected to that, more strongly than I experienced it before, was the overwhelming presence of war, in this case the Great War, though events elsewhere in Europe were doubtless on many minds too. Social brutalisation — remember Britten’s ‘the more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual’ for Peter Grimes — came strongly to the fore, not as a substitute for individual acts, but as a context and in many respects an intensification for them. This felt more strongly as if it were a drama founded in a military context, rather than having that context uneasily tacked on, tribute I think to some very fine dramatic performances. But the first in particular of the tavern scenes also felt more central, its madness and its malice seeping out in all directions, even retrospectively. Here, the haunted weirdness of masks (new resonances for a pandemic world) and puppets seemed to fuse more strongly with a post-Mahlerian musical sensibility: those marionettes from the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony come once again to life; or perhaps better (or at least closer to the truth), to death. Here was an expressionism in which Kentridge’s artificiality participated, danced, and sang.

Not that this was an especially Mahlerian performance. Mahler’s ghosts were present, of course. How could they not be in this opera? But listening again to that same scene from Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording, I realise that Susanna Mälkki’s concerns were in many respects quite different. Musical processes came more strongly to the fore through Berg’s closed forms, but with a hint at least of the Neue Sachlichkeit of the Twenties (when, of course, composition was completed, and the work’s premiere given). That psychological depth was present in, to borrow once more from Britten, the turning of the musical screw. Individual lines went their different ways, brought together in harmony and in contrapuntal and/or suspended counterpoint, yet also recognising that, more often than not, there remained a distance (that word again) from Mahler’s world, that this was a world of atonality, which had already suffered the war whose catastrophic progress we saw tracked onstage. Mälkki showed a keen sense of the whole, but also of detail: absolutely crucial in this work. She was warmer, I think, than Vladimir Jurowski in Salzburg, or at least less unremittingly formalist, without taking Abbado’s (or, say, Daniel Barenboim’s) late Romanticism as her model. This seemed not only her Wozzeck, but a Wozzeck designed for this production and these singers.

Much the same could be said of Johan Reuter’s assumption of the title role: tormented, yes, but very much within a particular context, spatial and historical as well as more conventionally expressionist. Reuter made much of the words, without making too much of them, gauging the level of speech and song unerringly, with apt fluidity and undeniable direction of purpose. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Marie was formidable, flawed, and feisty, never a victim, in a performance that grew out of yet was never confined to the text. John Daszak’s hideously cocky Drum Major, Gerhard Siegel’s mysteriously commonplace (in a good way!) Captain, and Falk Struckmann’s similarly etched Doctor all shone in their different ways. So too did Tansel Akzeybek’s Andres, in what can sometimes seem a lesser role than it is, yet here offered an excellent counterpoint to Wozzeck: what might have been, yet tragically never really would (and would it even have been much better?) One might say the same of Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur’s Margret, vis-à-vis Marie. The whole sorry society was finely portrayed, with a fine eye and ear both to ensemble and individuality, all underpinned by typically excellent playing of heft, transparency, and a myriad of darkened colours from the Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris.

Whether I have answered my original question, ‘why might that have been?’ I am unsure. Attempting to do so, though, has helped structure my response. In a sense, delineating and structuring responses out of chaos is what Berg and his interpreters are all involved with.

Mark Berry

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