Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gripping Wozzeck by Andrea Breth in Berlin

Wozzeck, April 24 2011, Staatsoper Berlin (Sch.Th)

Conductor ..... Daniel Barenboim
Director ..... Andrea Breth
Chorus Master ..... Eberhard Friedrich

Wozzeck ..... Roman Trekel
Tambourmajor ..... John Daszak
Andres ..... Florian Hoffmann
Hauptmann ..... Graham Clark
Doktor ..... Pavlo Hunka
Marie ..... Nadja Michael
Margret ..... Katharina Kammerloher
Erster Handwerksbursche ..... Jürgen Linn
Zweiter Handwerksbursche ..... James Homann
Narr ..... Heinz Zednik

Staatskapelle Berlin
Kinderchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Whata show! Along with the Kriegenburg's production in Munich, this must be the most compelling productions of "Wozzeck" ever. I love Alban Berg, love this opera, and when produced in this way it remains stuck with you forever.

For those of you who don't know, every year around the Easter week Barenboim and his staff  organize the Festtage at the Berlin's Staatsoper. Roughly that means a series of exceptionally good concerts colloquia and of course a couple of new opera productions. The casts are the best you could ask for, the musicians are particularly inspired, the theater looks festive too... and yes the tickets cost more than double the normal prices -- but that's still less than what you usually pay in London or in Paris for usually much less good performances. FYI, the program for the Festtage 2012 is already available and by subscribing now you may benefit the 10% discount.  This year two operas premiered at the Festtage were Die Walküre and Wozzeck. I saw them both and will comment on both.

Andrea Breth is known as one of the most sensible women in theater today, capable of dragging the audience into the peculiar atmosphere chosen for a given piece, the atmosphere in which she lets the actors evolve to make the spectator overwhelmed by a theatrical experience. This is really uncommon sort of talent that is particularly welcome to opera world that is often associated with unambitious or talentless directors producing too simple or flat-out dumb shows.

In this production of Wozzeck Andrea Breth managed in about 1 hour 40 to completely change the festive atmosphere in the theater and make the public uncomfortable, yet thrilled to be a part of something really extraordinary. This abrupt mood-swing fits impeccably the atonality of the Berg's work, and the theatrical experience was almost an illustration of that famous statement - theater is life. After the show you really have a feeling to have seen something unique, shared a moment that unites you with other folks in auditorium.

I believe dissecting this show would necessarily lead to its trivialization so I'll try to walk on the tight rope and hopefully won't spoil you the viewing of this MUST-SEE show.  Yes, you absolutely have to see this Wozzeck in this fantastic theater. The first striking detail of this show was the choice of lights and colors that suddenly made the air look dense, thick and heavy. That alone sets the atmosphere in which the great singers/actors take you to the next level, and the result is astonishingly poignant even if you know this opera from every possible angle.

As far as the dramatic structure goes, Andrea follows the libretto and organizes her show in a number (dozen) of scenes, each taking place in a small cell that adds claustrophobia to the already heavy atmosphere. The walls are made of wooden bars so that in spite of confinement the walls seem transparent and that gives an extra 'unsafe' condition to the characters.

Wozzeck and Doktor

Andrea also takes liberty to slightly change the libretto and surprise us in a few scenes but every such departure is there to exacerbate the unbearable atmosphere of the piece. Already in the second scene, for example, Wozzeck and Anders are not cutting wood but skinning the rabbits: in a corner of the small room you can see a pile of skins, Anders all smeared with blood.

Anders and Wozzeck

Marie is a young beautiful woman who is desperate, dreams of a better life, and another chance to turn her life around. She's torn between love and hate for her own son: on one hand her motherly instinct is love and desire to protect her son, but on the other hand he is keeping her stuck in the life she resents, reminds her of her mistake that determined her present life. Apart from that important line, Andrea Breth sees in Marie Berg's Carmen and that's pretty much how the story is constructed, only scaled down to the roughness and heaviness of unbearable life in this opera.

Marie and her son

The scene with a crowd is one of the two scenes in which the space opens up -- deconfines -- but not to let you breath better air, rather to show you that outside the little claustrophobic cells the life is not any less bleak. There is a rape on one side, a woman throwing up in a toilet, old mentally deranged person is wandering around, Marie is showing up from time to time dancing insanely with Drum-major. Wozzeck is already troubled by his visions and this multiple scene only takes his condition to another level of desperation.

The murder scene is also taking place in an open albeit dark space. In the end Marie's son is alone and in this production --maybe more than in any other-- you are left with a feeling that he actually is the most tragic figure of the story: he is condemned to life,  with a "bastard"-orphan label, and already emotionally damaged. A scene in which Marie makes love with Drum-major is happening a foot away from her son...

On the side of actors/singers, Nadja Michael is absolutely wonderful Marie. Her voice is not as beautiful as Angela Denoke's but her scenic presence is worth million dollars. Roman Trekel is able to vocally shape up a tender but emotionally troubled person whose manly side rebels against the reality of his existence. Mixing the soft tones with heavier passages is what makes him a wonderfully human and vulnerable Wozzeck. All other characters are amazingly sung and acted. The final applause was at first a bit timid -- the crowd was simply stunned by the gripping theatrical and musical experience they've just lived through. Only when the protagonist came for the 2nd or 3rd curtain call, the applause grew bigger and the loud "Bravo!"s started to pour from every corner of the theater.

Nadja Michael as Marie and John Daszak as Drum-major

The Berlin's Staatskapelle with Daniel Barenboim were probably the greatest stars of the show. Barenboim loves this opera and his previous recording is maybe the best reference, but I think this performance is musically monumental. The fact that the show took place at the humanly sized Schiller theater must be a factor, but this opera alone was worth my Easter week in Germany.

Murder scene

If you can possibly go to Berlin and see this show live, please do. Three shows are scheduled for October 2011 with the identical cast and this phenomenal orchestra lead by Barenboim.

The production photos are ©Bernd Uhlig. Others are mine.

In the end of the show Staatskapelle and Barenboim came up on the stage

Cast members - 1st curtain call

John Daszak, "Marie's son", Nadja Michael, Roman Trekel, Florian Hoffmann

Grandioso Daniel Barenboim

Roman Trekkel (Nth call)

Nadja Michael



  1. Glad to hear you liked it (at least) as much as I did. More Berg next season from Barenboim and Breth, with 'Lulu'...

  2. Hi Mark. This was a truly great operatic experience. That's the kind of shows that keep me going. I also liked Die Walküre for its irresistible aesthetics - although I am not sure I would've appreciated it as much if I didn't see the Rheingold before.

    Oh yes, Lulu will be huge. I wonder if they too would opt for the usual Cerha completion or the new one by Kloke (which I listened to in Copenhagen and loved it)

  3. Could you comment on the differences between the Cerha completion (the short score was done save for a few bits, the completion was mostly orchestration) and the Kloke one which had this description by a poster at Parterre Box:

    this production uses a new realization of the third act by Eberhard Kloke that includes long virtuoso solos for violin, piano and accordion during the Paris scene

    Does the fact that Berg never contemplated long solos for violin, piano and accordion matter?

  4. Hi there,loved the orchestral playing but I thought Trekel a disappointment in his portrayal,he never looked for a moment a man in despair,never mind increasing despair and seemed to be just going through the motions.Who knows what familiarity with the role might bring in the future but he certainly needs to look at the Abbado DVD and take some tips!