New Met ‘Wozzeck:’ Nightmare Descent Into Stark Madness

Peter Mattei, in his Met role debut as Wozzeck, and Elza van den Heever as Marie in William Kentridge’s staging of Alban Berg’s opera. Kentridge’s projected drawings are woven throughout the production. (Photos: Ken Howard/Met Opera)
By Vivien Schweitzer

NEW YORK – After the premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925 at the Berlin State Opera, one appalled critic compared departing the theater to leaving an insane asylum. That critic might have felt even more unsettled had he experienced the opera in William Kentridge’s nightmarishly powerful staging, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 27. In the Act II beer garden scene where Wozzeck hallucinates, zombie-like revelers in gas masks enacted a sinister waltz, awkwardly clutching chairs, crutches, and their fellow revelers in possibly the most macabre dance ever seen on the Met stage.

Wozzeck is the doctor’s (Christian van Horn) guinea pig.

Berg based his opera on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, beginning work on it in 1914 and continuing in 1917, by which time his own experiences in the army enabled him to fully sympathize with the downtrodden and humiliated title character. Kentridge, familiar to Met audiences from his productions of Shostakovich’s The Nose and Berg’s Lulu, was “completely hooked” when he staged Woyzeck in 1990 for the Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa. He was captivated both by “the absurdity and the cruelty” and the contemporary resonance of the play.

In Kentridge’s view, the title character’s relentless humiliation by his military superiors and the Drum-Major who seduces Marie (Wozzeck’s common-law wife) is ultimately what drives him to murder. Kentridge has spoken about the effects of poverty, destructive masculinity and the epidemic of men killing women in South Africa, referenced in this production by images of a black woman being shoved violently between two men.

A hand-held puppet, here operated by a nurse, represents Marie’s son.

Kentridge’s trademark drawings for projection are woven throughout his WWI-inspired staging, the detritus-cluttered stage resembling a bombed-out artist studio. The chaos is framed by scenes of devastation: barren fields, destroyed buildings, fires, and explosions. A succession of dreary images – bandaged heads, faces that morph into barbed wire, cartoonish militias, and lifelike soldiers running and falling – flash into view. Wozzeck and Marie’s son is represented by a sinister hand-held puppet, operated by puppeteers in nurse uniforms and gas masks. Shadowy figures slump in the corners of the set. The medical office where Wozzeck is subject to the Doctor’s experiments is a closet-like box crammed full of ominous looking medical tools.

Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin vividly highlighted the fast-changing emotions of Berg’s magnificent score, conveying every subtlety with laser-sharp clarity, the grotesque waltzes a startling contrast to the bittersweet violin melodies. The murder scene unfolded with bristling tension, from the eerie woodwinds to the dramatic orchestral crescendos in the post-murder interlude.

Marie dances with the Drum Major (Christopher Ventris) in the beer garden.

The intensity of the staging and orchestral playing was matched by a superb cast. The baritone Peter Mattei, making his Met role debut as Wozzeck, offered a mesmerizing portrayal of the character’s descent into madness, rendering the lyricism of Berg’s Sprechstimme vocal lines more notably than their angularity. It was impossible not to empathize with Wozzeck’s suffering when Mattei became visibly agitated while communicating the man’s disturbing visions to his fellow soldier Andres (tenor Andrew Staples, in an excellent Met debut) and the menacing doctor (well sung by bass-baritone Christian van Horn).  

Christopher Ventris was a swaggering Drum-Major and fellow tenor Gerhard Siegel a sinister and bullying Captain. The soprano Elza van den Heever sounded lustrous as the faithless but guilt-ridden Marie, her red house-dress a splash of color in the drab surroundings. Van den Heever effectively conveyed the contrasting elements of Marie’s personality, flirtatious as she admired the handsome drum major and despairing in the Act III scene while begging God for mercy.

There is no mercy for Marie, in the end, nor for Wozzeck. The violence of the story is certainly contemporary, as Kentridge has observed. The story and this brilliant (but sometimes over-stimulating) production are also reflective in other ways of our era with its 24/7 newsfeeds, constant distractions, public bullying, and oft-ignored cries for help.