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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Wozzeck - opera in three acts (fifteen scenes), Op.7, libretto by Alban Berg, after Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck (1925)
Wozzeck (baritone) – Franz Grundheber; Marie (soprano) – Waltraud Meier; Drum Major (tenor) – Mark Baker; Andres (tenor) – Endrik Wottrich; Captain (tenor) – Graham Clark ; Doctor (bass) – Gunter von Kannen; Idiot (tenor) – Peter Menzel; Margret (mezzo) – Dalia Schaechter
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper, Berlin; Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin, April 1994
Directed for stage and TV by Patrice Chéreau
WARNER CLASSICS 2564697427 [97:00] 

Experience Classicsonline


This is quite a tricky one - first the positives. As anyone who knows the audio CDs based on this same production will, I hope, agree, this is one of the best sung and best played Wozzecks on the market. The casting – of which more later – is uniformly strong, with many of the singers very experienced in these parts. The conducting is glorious, with Barenboim not afraid to take an expansively Romantic view of the score yet not lose sight of the forward-looking elements, particularly the orchestration. 

Now for some negatives. Stage director Patrice Chéreau became famous (notorious?) for his deconstructed centenary Ring at Bayreuth, and he may ruffle a few feathers with his approach here. He takes a broadly Brechtian view of the opera, which is valid in this tortured Expressionist masterpiece where too naturalistic a staging can jar. However, there is a middle ground, as proved by Adolf Dresen’s Vienna staging for Claudio Abbado in 1987, where the sets and costumes are basically realistic but within a small stage ‘picture’, a sort of mini-cinema within the proscenium which allows for speedy changes of locale. In Chéreau’s production, we have a bare stage for most of the time, punctuated occasionally by a series of platforms and various shaped frames that give geometric outlines of buildings, rooms. This is fine for certain scenes, but in others Chéreau has simply ignored Berg’s explicit instructions. 

A few examples: Wozzeck is not shaving the Captain in the opening scene; rather they are on an open set and the Captain is prowling round a stationary Wozzeck as an animal stalking its prey. This is fine for one aspect of the opera, that of Wozzeck as a hapless, doomed victim of the society around him. Unfortunately it doesn’t show how he is a dogsbody abused by his military superiors. In the following scene, Wozzeck and Andres are not cutting wood in the fields, but sweeping the stage floor with large janitors’ mops.  Again, fine for showing the underclasses at work, but it completely undermines the fear and superstition Wozzeck feels with the location and makes a mockery of his mention of toadstools talking to him etc. The production is full of these jarring inconsistencies, and is definitely at its best when we just have a bare stage and effective lighting, as in the scene of Marie’s murder or the scene in the soldiers’ barracks. Chéreau can’t resist messing with Berg’s ending, which should have the child (here looking too old) running off to join the other children to see Marie’s body. Chéreau instead has the children running off, the child correctly waiting a while, and then making his way down towards the audience in a follow spot and exiting through one of the theatre doors! As I say, Brechtian in its alienation but missing a whole dimension of climactic emotional intensity.

I could go on, and indeed it’s worth adding that much of it works well, but I wish he had simply left the stage bare throughout but for a few essential props, and gone then for a faithful rendition of Berg’s instructions, rather as Deborah Warner did for Opera North a few seasons ago. That way, it can be interiorized as a drama of the mind, letting the music then unleash its potency. Here, those jarring staging effects keep reminding us we are witnessing actors in a production, presumably Chéreau’s intention, but only fitfully effective. 

Musically things are much more enjoyable. Grundheber was the Wozzeck of the 1980s and 1990s, and he makes the character completely sympathetic and believable, even though he is in slightly better voice for the earlier Abbado. Waltraud Meier is also in good voice, but a little husky and perhaps a bit too icy and aggressive in places, though her red costume and bovver boots don’t help in this regard. Hildegard Behrens elicits more pity from us in the Abbado, as well as looking more sluttish and pathetic. Graham Clark is as callous as one could get as the Captain, and Gunter von Kannen’s Doctor radiates evil. Chorus work is excellent, imaginative and disciplined, especially so in the tavern scene. 

Barenboim and the orchestra are probably the real stars here, and unlike most DVDs, we don’t get to see them, which for me is the best way. In Abbado’s Vienna set, every interlude is covered by a tiresome cut to the pit, which defeats the object of Berg’s intentions. Mind you, Chéreau spoils them too, sometimes choreographing on-stage action, sometimes trundling on the set frames, and occasionally bringing down a curtain as Berg asks for. 

So, a mixed bag overall. Ultimately I prefer the Dresen/Abbado approach, and that version is also superbly sung and played, though picture and sound are not as good as Barenboim’s. Fans of the opera could also try the ultimate realism of the film version brilliantly conducted by Bruno Maderna from 1970 (Arthaus) well worth seeking out for Toni Blankenheim’s central portrayal. There are no extras on this Warner release, which is always a pity, especially with a short opera, but the booklet includes a very good overview and synopsis. 

Tony Haywood 




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