Friday, 20 October 2017

Theater an der Wien: Wozzeck

17 October 2017

When asked what the essence of Wozzeck is in his booklet interview, Robert Carsen answers that ‘It presents a great hopelessness.’ His view of the work, as presented in his new production for the Theater an der Wien, is unremittingly bleak then, made all the more so for its military minimalist aesthetic.

Florian Boesch as Wozzeck at the Theater an der Wien (Photo © Werner Kmetitsch)
Gideon Davey’s set consists of three camouflage walls encompassing the stage, those on either side with multiple high openings. Wires slung between them allow for sheets of material—also camouflage—to be efficiently pulled across to delineate the space and cover up changes of the largely minimal scenery.

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When the space is opened up, we get the sense (amplified by the characteristically atmospheric lighting by Carsen and Peter van Praet) of exaggerated perspective, especially effective as we watch Wozzeck drown in the blue-green distance. As you’d expect from Carsen, it’s a production that has a few moments of such poetry, of simple means creating powerful effects.

But Berg’s opera and his version of Büchner’s brilliantly drawn characters don’t always benefit, it seems to me, from the conceptual open spaces of this particular aesthetic. The costumes see women and even children, as well as the men, kitted out in military garb: here is a uniform world without contrasts; we could be anywhere in time or place in the last half century. 

There’s no flinching in the portrayal of this rogue’s gallery: the Captain (a sturdy, forthright John Daszak) is relentlessly hectoring, the Doctor (an impressive Stefan Cerny) relentlessly cruel, the Tambourmajor (Aleš Briscein, less heroic than many in the role) charmless and unremittingly sadistic. 

The misery of Lise Lindstrom’s strongly and often beautifully sung Marie is complete—and requires the occasional alleviation through drugs—and one gets little sense of any joy whatsoever derived from her child, portrayed with a heartbreaking sense of isolation at this performance by Samuel Wegleitner. The only hint of respite in this world of misery comes in Benjamin Hulett’s relatively breezy Andres.

Lise Lindstrom as Marie (© Werner Kmetitsch)
At the heart of it all is an impressive Wozzeck from Florian Boesch, who, as we know from his Lieder-singing, is never afraid to put expressionistic directness first; vocal beauty—and this is not a voice of honeyed tones and rich colours in any case—is subordinated to dramatic truth. Unlike with his Lieder-singing, though, here he seemed to have been encouraged to draw from just one side of his broad expressive palette. 

There were a handful of moments of hushed intimacy, admittedly, but a predominance of raw, visceral roar. This was Wozzeck as beefy brute, his animalistic qualities further emphasised at the start of his scene with the Doctor: he sits downstage with his back to us blithely producing a stool sample, wiping his bare backside before delivering his offering for inspection.

As a demonstration of the character’s humiliation and loss of dignity it was undeniably effective. And I won’t forget in a hurry the moment, at the height of Wozzeck’s paranoia, that Boesch made his way to the front of the stage to eyeball us and unleash the full power of his voice. But reducing the character to an animal risked reducing us in the audience to viewers of some sort of nature documentary rather than spectators of a drama—and a deeply human one at that.

Aleš Briscien (Tambourmajor) and Florian Boesch (Wozzeck) (Photo © Werner Kmetitsch)
Wozzeck’s murder of Marie, conveyed with unblinking directness, was shocking; but neither that nor his final stumble through a field of bodies (dead, one presumed, but it wasn’t entirely clear) moved me on an emotional level. The child’s forlorn ‘Hopp, hopp’ at the close, a rifle repurposed as hobbyhorse, was also less touching than it can be in stagings that cover more of the spectrum between the human and the animal. In focusing powerfully on the dehumanising effects of military life, Carsen was making an important point; but he also, it seemed to me, lost some of the work’s richness, blunting its tragedy. 

Arguably the work’s richness was also what was primarily lost in the orchestral performance, with Leo Hussain conducting a new version of the score by Eberhard Kloke—largely a matter of compression of the instrumentation so that the Wiener Symphoniker could be squeezed into the Theater an der Wien’s modest pit. 

Sinewy and raw, conducted with a powerful sense of focus, it nevertheless complemented Carsen’s forceful vision wella vision given yet greater force by  fearlessly committed performances from the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the well-drilled cast.

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