Drowning in Berg

After my last blog post, a fellow crank replied, “You’re cranky? Wozzeck’s Captain abuses him, his doc uses him for experiments, and his girl cheats on him.”

Good point.

Also, Wozzeck drowns. Then again, I practically drowned biking home from the New Haven train station in the driving rain. So we’re even there.

Alban Berg

I went to the Met today to catch the last performance of Wozzeck, and I’m so glad I did. I’d listened to recordings of the opera, and I’d heard excerpts of it in concert this past January with Janna Baty and the Yale Philharmonia, but I’d never seen it staged.

James Levine conducted, the first time I’d seen him, and the orchestra sounded fabulous. Through their performance, I reveled in Berg’s seemingly infinite palette, from the fleeting moments of tonality to the opera’s harshest crashes. The single-note crescendos before Act III were each a study in the myriad colors of a single pitch. The onstage musicians in Act II captured Berg’s half-illustrative, half-parodic tone. There were beautiful solos from the concertmaster and principal cello, fierce playing from the percussion section, and wonderfully subtle work from the brass.

I’m glad I saw the opera staged, but the best part of it was how it sounded.

The set’s high, looming walls and exposed square beams looked pretty cool, and they made good canvases for the striking lighting design, with its strong lines and deep shadows. But the set didn’t add anything in itself. It didn’t define spaces well: Marie’s house is only Marie’s house because of the bed. Wozzeck and Andre cut branches (or, rather, carry them around and tie them together) on a bare, raked stage. The tavern feels appropriately close and claustrophobic, particularly in the way it seems to funnel people toward its narrow upstage slot, but nothing about it communicates tavern-ness.

(If you had arrived late enough that you hadn’t had time to read the synopsis and freshen up your knowledge of the plot, you might think, “Where’d the party come from?” And only when the word “tavern” comes up on the Met titles do you realize where the scene is. I’m just saying.)

Robert Israel’s costumes were stronger than his set. (And if I could see anything of them from the family circle, that says something.) I liked the irony of Marie’s white dress, the just-below-the-knee length furthering the false suggestion of innocence. The doctor’s vest and watch chain perfectly captured his place in society and touched on his delusions of grandeur beyond his stature. That the boy wore Wozzeck’s hat in the last scene was a poignant touch.

I don’t know if the stage changes are particularly clumsy, or if there’s a particular dramatic reason to bring the curtain down every three minutes, but the curtain did a lot of falling and rising. It really kills the dramatic momentum of a scene to see the curtain begin to descend. What’s wrong with a blackout once in a while? Or in letting the audience watch the set changes? It’s not like there were a whole lot of props to move on and off stage. I thought back to the Met’s Boris Godunov and remembered how the transitions swept that (very long) opera from one scene to the next in a single breath.

Waltraud Meier made a spectacular Marie, earthy and incisive. Her voice can range from roses to ice as she veers between seductive warmth and self-destructive remorse. Her cry of “Don’t touch me!” to the Drum Major was shattering. Alan Held made a solid Wozzeck, though his antics in the drowning scene were excessive. If you’re standing that deep in water, you can’t dart back and forth that quickly, flailing all the while.

Gerhard Siegel dazzled with his vocal clarity as the Captain. (Judging by the ovations, much of the audience agreed with me. I like being validated.) His high notes pierced handsomely through the orchestral texture, and he enunciated Wozzeck’s name with delicious percussiveness.

The staging was adequate but sometimes bland. Act II, scene 5  opened with a striking tableau of sleeping soldiers, creepy in their pale union suits, lying in corpse-like poses. But Wozzeck’s murder of Marie seemed too dispassionate, too bloodless. In crowd scenes, too many people stood around without contributing enough. Even the last scene, which can be so utterly devastating, didn’t cut as deeply as it should have.

“It’s a very male opera,” my companion said afterward. True, it’s full of men. But it’s not a compliment to masculinity. The Drum Major’s swagger testifies to that. So does the image of the gray, emasculated soldiers sleeping in ragged rows; so does the absurdity of both the doctor and the captain; so does the entire struggle of Wozzeck himself. For even though he’s far from heroic, he’s the most human of the men, and we feel how downtrodden he is. Marie, too, is deeply human, subject to the vagary of emotions but not deserving of her bloody death.

And yet, Berg constantly reminds us, life goes on. Bystanders literally walk past tragedy, and the sun rises again. And Marie’s son hops on, oblivious.

Berg’s score is why all of this lives on. I wish his music were performed more often, and performed like it was today: with its abstraction exposed and unafraid, and all of its multi-hued beauty drawn out and burnished.


Filed under music, opera

5 responses to “Drowning in Berg

  1. It’s amazing that Wozzeck was Berg’s first opera. The theatricality and pacing of it is so amazingly sure. Those scene changes? Berg wrote them into the music. You can change the set during the instrumental interludes, which was probably why the curtain rose and fell so much–just following Berg’s directions.

    It’s a very different opera than Erwartung, but it would be interesting to read a comparison of the two.

    Levine knows Wozzeck inside and out. There’s probably no other American conductor who can do it so well (Salonen could, but he’s not leading any US orchestra these days). I’ll bet the big D minor climax in Act III was spine-tingling.

  2. I know Berg wrote the scene changes into the music, but there’s more than one to do a scene change. I question the wisdom of closing the curtain every time, because it has the effect of closing off people’s attention – even from the music.

    The D minor climax was stunning.

    You’re interested in a comparison of Erwartung and Wozzeck as experiences? Or comparing the recent productions at Lincoln Center?

    • Well, the adjacent Lincoln Center performances is a good starting point for a discussion of both. 2 Expressionist operas. Schoenberg was never as free a composer as he was in Ewartung. Wozzeck is rigorously structured, although not as much as Lulu or subsequent works. Designs for each. Audience involvement for each. Just curious.

  3. When I was listening to Erwartung last month, I kept wishing that Schoenberg had spent more time in that compositional freedom.

    For our next project, we should compare Lulu with Moses und Aron…

    The productions of Erwartung and Wozzeck were incredibly different. NYCO’s Erwartung was poetic; the Met’s Wozzeck was gritty. Michael Counts (the production director for Monodramas) filled the stage with silent people; in Erwartung, those people were women in white which, according to an NYCO video, represent the narrator’s personality on stage. And there was the guy lying on his back for most of the opera. Red petals fell over the mostly bare stage. It felt suspended in time, more dream/nightmare than reality.

    Wozzeck felt very much grounded in time and in the grimness of reality. The gray hues, looming set pieces, and dramatic shadows all created a word that was stylized but present, physical in a way that the world of Erwartung wasn’t. Which makes perfect sense, since Wozzeck’s misery comes from his wretched circumstances. Erwartung’s narrator is lost in some space between the mind and the physical world, and neither we nor she are sure which. NYCO’s production captured that as well as the Met captures the events that wall Wozzeck in.

  4. And as for audience involvement: the crowd at Wozzeck yesterday was great. I didn’t see a whole lot of empty seats. I have no idea what their houses were like for the rest of the run.

    Read Greg Sandow’s recent piece on the audiences for NYCO’s Monodramas.

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