Buechner, Berg and the deconstruction of a soul


(c) Ryan Bourque

Sean Patrick Fawcett, left, plays the Captain and Geoff Button is Woyzeck in the About Face-Hypocrites production of Büchner’s play. 


Review: “Wozzeck,” opera by Alban Berg, Metropolitan Opera, New York; “Woyzeck,” play by Georg Büchner, collaboration by About Face and Hypocrites theater companies at the Chopin Theatre, Chicago

The first opera I came to know really well, as a college student, was nothing so conventionally tuneful or romantic as Verdi’s “La Traviata” or Puccini’s “La Boheme.” What nailed my attention, and nudged me down the path toward criticism, was the grim, dissonant portrait of a beleaguered human being at the end of his rope, a simple man, a soldier, driven to distraction and murder by his self-righteous, moralizing and hypocritical superiors: Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.”

By happy coincidence, I recently caught the Metropolitan Opera’s stunning production of “Wozzeck” followed closely in Chicago by a stark, chillingly vivid account of Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck” – on which Berg based his opera – by the combined About Face and Hypocrites theater companies. It was after attending the first Vienna production of Büchner’s unfinished “Woyzeck,” in 1914, that Berg threw himself into retelling the story through the power of his own expressionist musical language.

When Büchner died in 1837, at age 23, he left behind an unfinished manuscript about a soldier called Franz Woyzeck whose life is bounded by poverty and routine. To augment his meager army pay, he shaves his captain, who berates Woyzeck for his lack of morals. The poor fellow also follows a strict dietary regiment imposed by a perverse doctor who thinks he can establish a correlation between malnutrition and insanity. With his common law wife Marie, Woyzeck has a child. But Marie is unfaithful and the captain taunts Woyzeck about it. His life is, in short, awful.

Producing Büchner’s play has always meant organizing and fleshing out the many brief scenes he left with no particular designation of order. Thus Berg fashioned his opera – altering the play’s title to
“Wozzeck” — into 15 scenes divided into three continuously flowing acts of five scenes each. His storyline closely resembles “Woyzeck,” as staged by the joint Chicago companies: Woyzeck steadily crumbles under the strain of mental abuse, poor diet and Marie’s unfaithfulness until he loses control and murders the woman with a knife. In the play, Woyzeck then slashes his own throat; in Berg’s opera, he drowns in a frantic attempt to toss the knife far out into a lake, lest the weapon be discovered.

Berg also added one last devastating touch: Near the bank where Marie’s body has been found, the child of that ill-starred couple rides his hobby horse and calls out “Hop-hop, hop-hop” – to a silent orchestra – oblivious, as the children around him shout, “Your mother is dead.”

Essentially, “Wozzeck,” which premiered in 1925, carries forward the Wagnerian ideal of music-drama, the complete integration of words and music. Indeed, it seems inaccurate to speak of Berg’s orchestration; the orchestra is mirror, accompaniment and commentator. The vocal and orchestral lines are interwoven with consummate technical finesse and dramatic purpose; it is the convulsions of a soul in the extremity of circumstance. At the performance I heard in April, conductor James Levine and the phenomenal Met orchestra forged those lines into an intimate tragedy of monumental weight. Baritone Alan Held as Wozzeck and soprano Waltraud Meier as Marie headed a brilliant cast, and Mark Lamos’ spare, high-walled set gave the madness a visual dimension.

What originally inspired Berg must have been an experience much like the About Face-Hypocrites “Woyzeck” now playing at the Chopin Theatre. On designer Tom Burch’s nearly barren set, director Sean Graney – who also adapted the play – has created a bleak world where hope is just a four-letter word. So hard-pressed are Woyzeck (the manic Geoff Button) and Marie (the radiant Lindsey Gavel) that their child is more than a burden; it is a stone.

As the supercilious captain (Sean Patrick Fawcett) and the maniacal doctor (Ryan Bollettino) badger and manipulate Woyzeck, he reels into paranoid anxiety. His mechanical, relentless assault on Marie is love and need warped into mindless perversity. It is painful to watch a helpless man ground down by a calculating, exploitative society. That’s exactly where Büchner was taking aim. Score a bull’s eye for this clear-sighted production.     

“Woyzeck” runs through May 22. www.thewoyzeckproject.com