By Rebecca Schmid
VIENNA — Less than two hours after a right-leaning national government swept into victory here on Oct. 15, the Theater an der Wien unveiled its first premiere of the season, a Robert Carsen staging of Berg’s Wozzeck. The opera’s depiction of the alienation and social decay induced by war manages to send shudders down the spine upon each hearing and, given the instability of global politics today, took on added resonance. In the 1,129-seat theater, Eberhard Kloke’s 2004 arrangement for small orchestra of Berg’s original score afforded an intimate experience.
The production’s visual aesthetic captures the derangement and repressed fury that drive the title character without overwhelming the music. Both sets and costumes reproduce the brown-and-green camouflage print of a soldier’s uniform, with expressive lighting creating an nightmarish touch. A corridor of doors on both sides of the stage further indicates a dream world from which there is no escape, while a curtain downstage serves for neat scene-changes such as the transition into Marie’s house.
The 63-year-old Carsen is such a master of human psychology that he doesn’t need flashy gimmicks to animate the drama. But extras such as the nude male body that lies on a metal table in the doctor’s study or the soldiers who cover the ground – perhaps sleeping, perhaps already dead – in the penultimate scene evoke the human tragedy at the center of the story with chilling immediacy. In this Wozzeck, the world is populated by bawdy soldiers and promiscuous women; eroticism and violence are inextricably intertwined. When Marie and the Drum Major are seen flirting for the first time, they are shadowed by men and women who flirt from opposite sides of the stage, creating an insurmountable tension that echoes the sensuous but brooding score.
As conductor Leo Hussain indicates in program notes, Berg fused the lessons of Arnold Schoenberg with late Romanticism into what Hussain jokingly calls “Mahler or Strauss on drugs.” Tonality dissolves while taking the listener through centuries of musical heritage, expressing a kind of bitter nostalgia for pre-World War I Europe. The Wiener Symphoniker shifted expertly between Berg’s violent changes of mood, from the instrumental fury after Wozzeck visits Marie and gives her money in the third scene (in Carsen’s staging, she gives herself a shot of heroine while her illegitimate son is sleeping), to the twittering schizophrenia that punctuates the Act II scene in which the Captain and the Doctor taunt an increasingly distracted Wozzeck.
The distorted Ländler that spills into the tavern scene could have been more caustic but achieved the right tone with a passage of only strings as Marie danced past Wozzeck with the Drum Major. Thanks to the uniformly excellent cast and Carsen’s sensitive direction, each tableau was more powerful than the one before, culminating in the final scene in which Marie’s son (Samuel Wegleitner) gallops in solitude on a rifle after being informed by a group of cold-hearted children that his mother is dead. The viewer can only imagine that the young boy will face the same fate as his father, who is ultimately driven mad by the violence and greed around him.
Florian Boesch was a gripping presence in the title role, pushing his voice toward a desperate scream near the end of the Act III tavern scene. In the punishingly difficult role of Marie, Lise Lindstrom was both tough and vulnerable, mastering the shooting high notes of the slow soliloquy that opens the Third Act. Aleš Briscein made for a strapping but sinister Drum Major, while Stefan Cerny struck just the right balance of comedy and menace as the Doctor.
As the Captain, John Daszak stood out for his ringing tone, darkly humorous characterization, and careful diction. The clear-voiced tenor Benjamin Hulett and sultry mezzo-soprano Juliette Mars rounded out the cast, respectively, as Wozzeck’s friend Andres and the provocative Margret, who smells blood after Wozzeck has murdered Marie. The cast, conductor, and directing team bowed to warm applause, but the shock of both the opera’s closeness and the political reality outside the theater converged in mind as Carsen accepted the audience’s praise with a straight, slightly worried expression.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.