The Met Streams Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Thursday, July 16

Berg’s Wozzeck  ~ 1Hr 51Mins

Starring Elza van den Heever, Tamara Mumford, Christopher Ventris, Gerhard Siegel, Andrew Staples, Peter Mattei, and Christian Van Horn, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. From January 11, 2020.

 This is the Met’s powerful new production of Berg’s shocking modern masterpiece Wozzeck, directed by innovative artist, filmmaker, and director William Kentridge. Baritone Peter Mattei (we’ve seen him in Tannhauser, Barber of Seville and Parsifal) stars as the title character, making his role debut as the tormented soldier whose madness and paranoia ultimately drive him to murder. The exceptional cast also features soprano Elza van den Heever (she has been in Maria Stuarda and Idomeneo) as Wozzeck’s common-law wife, Marie, and tenors Gerhard Siegel and Christopher Ventris, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as his ruthless persecutors.

 A difficult yet captivating piece of music and theater, Wozzeck is based on Georg Büchner’s groundbreaking play Woyzeck, a searing, shockingly modern psychological drama that was written in the 1830s but did not come to the stage until some 80 years later. Its brutal social commentary was years ahead of its time, but fascinated Berg the moment he saw it. It is the bleak story of a hapless soldier driven by humiliation and jealousy to murder his lover. Prominent themes of militarism, callousness, social exploitation, and a casual sadism are uncompromisingly presented. Berg’s modern, atonal music intensifies our sense of the suffering and horror —it is a musical depiction of a mind’s descent into madness.

 Adding to the impact are the set’s extraordinary projections created by William Kentridge. Kentridge had previously done very successful productions of Shostakovich’s The Nose and Berg’s Lulu for the Met, but this production received even wider acclaim. 

 Wozzeck is generally regarded as the first opera produced in the 20th-century avant-garde Expressionist style and is also one of the most famous examples of employing atonality (music that avoids establishing a key) and Sprechgesang – literally, speak-singing which is a vocal technique that uses the cadences of normal speech to amplify the dramatic effect. 

Although on the surface, the music may seem disorganized and chaotic, the opera has multiple organizing structures that help us experience it as a coherent whole. The first act is a series of character pieces which introduce us to the major players and their relationships. The second act is a kind of symphony (with a sonata movement, a scherzo, and so on) that provides us with insights into Wozzeck’s psychological break down.. And the last act is a series of inventions that lead to conclusion. 

   Expositions 

 Act 1 

 Five character pieces 

  Wozzeck and the Captain 

Scene 1 

Suite 

  Wozzeck and Andres 

Scene 2 

Rhapsody 

  Wozzeck and Marie 

Scene 3 

Military March and Lullaby 

  Wozzeck and the Doctor 

Scene 4 

Passacaglia 

  Marie and the Drum Major 

Scene 5 

 Andante affettuoso (quasi Rondo) 

  Dramatic development 

 Act 2 

 Symphony in five movements 

  Marie and her child, later Wozzeck 

Scene 1 

Sonata movement 

  The Captain and the Doctor, later Wozzeck 

Scene 2 

Fantasia and fugue 

  Marie and Wozzeck 

Scene 3 

 Largo 

  Garden of a tavern 

Scene 4 

Scherzo 

  Garden room in the barracks 

Scene 5 

 Rondo con introduzione 

  Catastrophe and epilogue 

 Act 3 

 Six inventions 

  Marie and her child 

Scene 1 

Invention on a theme 

  Marie and Wozzeck 

Scene 2 

Invention on a note (B♮) 

  Tavern 

Scene 3 

Invention on a rhythm 

  Death of Wozzeck 

Scene 4 

Invention on a hexachord 

Interlude 

Invention on a key (D minor) 

  Children playing 

Scene 5 

Invention on a regular quaver movement 

  If you are open to being shocked, depressed and moved by an amazingly innovative piece of operatic theatre – you should see this production and especially this cast – it is far and away the best I have seen (others have tended, in my mind, to be unnecessarily disgusting). A synopsis cannot begin to explain it, however – you just need to experience it – or pass. Not that there isn’t already enough in our lives to depress us, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of some fundamentals. The New Times’ review put it this way: “…. few works look at life with more searing honesty than “Wozzeck.” The issues that drive this wrenching, profound opera are especially timely now: the impact of economic inequality on struggling families; the looming threats of war and environmental destruction; the rigid stratification — almost the militarization — of every element of society.”

Once again, you will need to decide for yourself.

 Photo Credits

1. Peter Mattei in the title role and Elza van den Heever as Marie in William Kentridge’s new production of Berg’s “Wozzeck.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

2. Peter Mattei in the title role and Elza van den Heever as Marie in William Kentridge’s new production of Berg’s “Wozzeck.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

3. Table prepared by Fritz Mahler.

4. Peter Mattei in the title role in William Kentridge’s new production of Berg’s “Wozzeck.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

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