Simon Stone’s new thought-provoking retelling of Berg’s Wozzeck at Vienna State Opera

AustriaAustria Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Children’s Chorus, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna Stata / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Jakob Pitzer) from Vienna State Opera on 31.3.2022. (JPr)

Anja Kampe (Marie) & Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Director – Simon Stone
Stage design – Bob Cousins
Costume design – Alice Babidge, Fauve Ryckebusch
Lighting design – James Farncombe

Cast included:
Wozzeck – Christian Gerhaher
Drum Major – Sean Panikkar
Captain – Jörg Schneider
Doctor – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Marie – Anja Kampe
Andres – Josh Lovell
First Craftsman – Peter Kellner
Second Craftsman – Stefan Astakhov
Fool – Thomas Ebenstein
Margret – Christina Bock

Having heard Munich’s Peter Grimes recently (review click here) and now Simon Stone’s new production of Wozzeck in Vienna I am reminded once again how musically connected these operas are. Alban Berg’s story concerns the humiliation and destruction of a soldier suffering emotionally and psychologically because of the horrors of war – we now call this as suffering from PTSD – who finally becomes so deranged that in a jealous rage he murders Marie, the mother of his illegitimate child, before being drowned at the end of the opera. It is Wozzeck’s death which particularly confirms the strong musical connection between Berg and Britten who I understand had wanted to study composition with the Austrian composer. Notably, Wozzeck influenced Peter Grimes in the use of interludes, onstage band, and 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, the more expressionist Wozzeck is populated by odd people from the get-go, which reflected Berg’s personal reaction to the First World War and he wrote of the Wozzeck: ‘There is a little bit of me in his character, since I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact, humiliated.’

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

Intriguingly it was in Vienna’s Kammerspiele where Berg – one month after the 29-year-old composer was called up for his army medical and deemed unfit – saw a performance of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck in May 1914 and it impressed him so much that he immediately thought of setting the drama (that he saw mistitled as Wozzeck) to music though his teacher Arnold Schoenberg didn’t think much of the idea. Büchner’s play was left unfinished on his death aged only 23 in 1837 and had various completions and it was one of those by Paul Landau that was the basis of the text Berg used for his own libretto. Berg began setting it to music almost immediately but did not complete his score until 1922 and Wozzeck was premiered to great success in Berlin in 1925. The first performance in Vienna was under Clemens Krauss in 1930 and the opera (conducted by Karl Böhm) was part of the 1955 reopening of the Vienna State Opera, with the last new Vienna Wozzeck staged by Adolf Dresen in 1987 and Simon Stone has now directed Vienna’s fifth new production so far.

What does Stone do with Wozzeck after his quirky Vienna La traviata (review click here)? Well we are in modern-day Vienna basically amongst those disenfranchised and dispossessed who frequently find they are exploited or persecuted by a society they rail against and blame for their ills to the detriment of their mental health. This is a basis for a thought-provoking retelling of Wozzeck’s story and what leads him to kill the mother of his child, but Stone’s production provokes too many thoughts which distract from this. Chiefly amongst them is that we are not certain who Stone’s Wozzeck actually is, nor why Marie is attracted to him and has willingly had his child. Wozzeck here appears to be someone (a former soldier?) going from job to job and is first seen working as a hairdresser and shaving the captain in a salon whose other two customers will have their throats slit at the end of the scene. Bob Cousins’s revolving set is mostly tiled in white and set against a black background and there is more than a hint of a sanatorium about it. It turns almost continuously as Wozzeck roams through the various settings for the scenes.

With his friend Andres, Wozzeck is soon seen in the long queue at the ‘Arbeitsamt’ (Employment Office) seeking his next job and will soon be the guinea pig of a doctor in a clinic examining the effects of his diet of beans by being subjected to a colonoscopy in front of some medical students. Struggling to make ends meets Wozzeck rarely returns to Marie who feels neglected and looks elsewhere for affection. That comes from the policeman (aka Berg’s Drum Major) she meets at a sausage stand – one of Stone’s tropes after his kebab seller in La traviata – who gives Marie some earrings which incites Wozzeck’s jealousy and he can’t get thoughts of their illicit love-making out of his head.

There are a number of problems with Stone’s Konzept: we are not sure what Wozzeck’s connection with the captain is and the policeman isn’t really going to bring Marie much social advancement; also, if Wozzeck has to scrap around and earn every euro he can how does Marie afford such a well-appointed three-room apartment with its up-to-date mod cons and all those toys for her son. Wozzeck joins the Captain and Doctor at a gym and is shown exercising on some equipment, and you have to wonder how he can possibly afford the membership fee? Also, would these two establishment figures welcome Wozzeck as a member of their gym? (Had he been the cleaner there it would have made more sense.) Oddly, we soon see Wozzeck at an elaborate fancy dress party (Berg’s hunters’ chorus) and – with him as a mouse – everyone is dressed as animals and funny costumes seem another Stone trademark. The revellers – a lot of beer is drunk in this Wozzeck – sleep it all off on the Simmering U-Bahn platform amongst others needing somewhere to spend the night.

Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck) & Anja Kampe (Marie) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

A drunken boasting Drum Major arrives on the platform and roughs up Wozzeck and tips him over the edge. So with a knife in his hand he will now confront Marie who he finds seeking solace by reading the bible on the grassy banks of – what I suspect is supposed to be – the Donauinsel (Danube Island). Violence takes its course and Wozzeck slits Marie’s throat (rather unconvincedly) and pushes her into a sewer which he will eventually follow her down into. At the end children emerge from the grass and run off after Wozzeck body is brought back up by the police and suspended above the stage, to leave Marie’s son sitting alone singing to himself.

Christian Gerhaher impresses me more on the opera stage the more I see him. He is both an accomplished actor and an eloquent baritone, though he is always Gerhaher and never seems to entirely lose himself in the character he is singing. Although he has sung Wozzeck before there was still a certain introspection to his performance and – no thanks to Jakob Pitzer’s close-up camerawork for the livestream – several glances towards the prompter during the opera. Nevertheless Gerhaher’s Wozzeck was browbeaten, neurotic and suspicious of Marie who he adores (though what she sees in him is unclear), as well as being at his wit’s end trying to make ends meet. He is prone to angry outbursts and ultimately murders Marie because if he can’t have her, nobody else will.

Anja Kampe’s Marie loves their child though Wozzeck seems a mystery to her and her eyes wander because she is frustrated. Despite occasionally being sorely tested by what Berg’s vocal lines demanded from her, Kampe did elicit much sympathy for Marie who is conflicted and ultimately full of remorse. It seemed she wanted to be loyal to Wozzeck but succumbed to the Drum Major’s advances despite initially fighting him off and relished the rewards it brought.

As part of a strong ensemble all the remaining principals sang well even if their characters were rather two-dimensional. The Captain (Jörg Schneider) and Doctor (Dmitry Belosselskiy) exist to berate and abuse Wozzeck, though the cocaine-snorting Doctor’s medical experiments will resonate most with those who have longer memories of the atrocities of the Third Reich. Josh Lovell was convincingly loyal and supportive as Wozzeck’s friend Andres though Sean Panikkar‘s Drum Major – despite being strongly sung – was a mere cypher, though that might be more Stone’s fault than the singer’s.

Berg’s expressionistic, discordant – and frequently unsettling – score is full of musical contrasts with intimate chamber-like moments, meditative interludes, rampant percussion and intense climaxes. Kudos to the onstage musicians comprising two violins, clarinet, accordion, guitar and tuba for Stone’s Act II costume party and the pianist in the last act. Obviously, I was hearing everything through loudspeakers but Philippe Jordan with the incomparable support of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra seemed to have a firm grasp of Berg’s complex music.

Jim Pritchard

Leave a Comment