Alban BERG (1885-1935) Wozzeck
Wozzeck – Christian Gerhaher
Marie – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Drum Major – Brandon Jovanovich
Andres – Mauro Peter
Captain – Wolfang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Doctor – Lars Woldt
Chor der Oper Zurich
Fabio Luisi (conductor)
Andreas Homoki (stage director)
rec live, Opernhaus Zurich, September 2015
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; LPCM Stereo; DD 5.1, DTS 5.1 ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC20363 DVD [101 mins]
Christian Gerhaher’s debut as Wozzeck was one of the most anticipated operatic events of 2015. One year later it arrives on this very classy Accentus DVD, and you can see why the anticipation was justified. He is absolutely compelling in the title role, the finest Wozzeck I’ve ever seen or heard, and I can’t easily see him being matched. Indeed, it’s hard to know where to start lavishing praise. He brings all of the beauty and nobility of his honeyed tone to the role of the oppressed soldier, but he combines that with all the actorly skill and attention to detail that you would expect from the finest Lieder singer of our time. Nowhere is this better seen than just before the murder of Marie, when a hint of madness enters the voice that is palpable but not overdone, something he then abandons in the mania of the ensuing tavern scene. He brings the role to life in a way I’ve never previously seen, and he does so while bringing such insight into the role that I almost feel I’ve never understood the opera until seeing him. He is compelling and uncommonly noble when outlining to the Captain the misery of his existence, then on the brink of hysteria in the scene where he cuts sticks with Andres. He is desperate as he tries to pour out his fears to the coldly indifferent Doctor, and his victimhood is both tragic and moving at the end of Act Two. His scenes with Marie are the extraordinary highlights. He is conveys Wozzeck’s awkward emotions beautifully, poignantly unable to express his love for Marie adequately before cancerous suspicion drags him under; and yet the scene where he gives her the money is almost unbearably tender. I’ve praised Gerhaher to the skies in these pages before, but this only makes me rate him higher. It’s a masterclass in great singing-acting.
It’s not a one-horse-show, though. Gun-Brit Barkmin’s darkish, earthy voice suits the character of Marie very well. She comes across as a strong woman – she has agency in her affair with the Drum Major, after all – but she’s still a victim, and she is as trapped as anyone else in the story, undone by her own guilt in the end. The lesser roles are all done brilliantly, be it the highly strung, paranoid Captain; the bluff, affable Andres, the Drum Major of revolting braggadocio or the Doctor who appears to have stepped straight out of a gothic horror story. The chorus are also tremendously game in their several guises, and the children set the seal on the whole in the final scene as grotesque recreations of the other characters, as though the whole tragedy is unavoidably destined to repeat itself. The orchestra play like masters for Fabio Luisi, and the surround sound brings everything to life magnificently.
Andreas Homoki’s production is the other great star. Michael Levine’s set is a series of stylised frames and boxes that unfold from within one another, constantly revealing and concealing people, and capable of distorting itself to reflect Wozzeck’s state of mind. The characters are all archetypes of some kind, and act like the figures in a grotesque puppet show, often zipping up out of nowhere, as though horrible figments of Wozzeck's fevered imagination. Everyone has a horrid patina of white makeup on their faces, as if to underline the impossibility of their relating to one another, emphasising the horribly inhumanity of Wozzeck’s desperate position as though it were some vast cosmic joke. The only drawback is that you need to know the story in advance, because there is neither tavern, lake nor barracks, but that’s a small price to pay for the gains in psychological depth and insight, and Homoki is very skilled in delineating the characters’ innermost feelings and fears.
The camera-work is excellent, with a choice mix of close-ups and wider-angled shots, and we even get taken into the pit for some of the orchestral interludes. It helps that Accentus’ packaging is very stylish and, though there are no extra films, there are three interesting interviews in the booklet, including one from 1930 with the composer himself.
This is the best opera DVD I’ve seen this year, but it’s also the best Wozzeck to have come my way since Wächter and Silja for Dohnanyi in 1979. I’d even say that it’s now a first choice for the opera in any format. Gerhaher’s singing lifts it into a whole new level, better even than Wächter’s, and everyone around him gives of their best too, perhaps because of him. The production is so thoughtful that it’s infinitely preferable to the attempted realism of Abbado’s Vienna performance or the inescapably grim production for Barenboim in Berlin. In short, it’s a triumph: gripping, moving, indispensable.