Berg - Wozzeck

ONP Bastille, Monday April 7 2008

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Christoph Marthaler. Sets and costumes: Anna Viebrock. Lighting: Olaf Winter. Wozzeck: Simon Keenlyside. Tambourmajor: Jon Villars. Andres: David Kuebler. Hauptmann: Gerhard Siegel. Doktor: Roland Bracht. Marie: Angela Denoke. Margret: Ursula Hesse von den Steinen. Erster Handwerksbursch: Patrick Schramm. Zweiter Handwerksbursch: Igor Gnidii. Der Narr: John Graham-Hall. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Hauts-de-Seine and Opéra National de Paris children’s choirs.

“An arresting vision of Berg’s masterpiece.” “Devastating.” “An infinitely pertinent, sensitive staging.” “A Wozzeck for the annals.” There have been few dissenting voices in the chorus of critical praise for Paris’s new production of Wozzeck – understandably: it has a deluxe cast and the production is a tour de force of minutely detailed direction in a single set.

Simon Keenlyside’s debut in the role is everything you’d expect. He’s at his peak or, as La Libre Belgique put it: “... better than ever, lending to Wozzeck an athlete’s form rendered gauche by madness and the infinite inflexions of a powerful, solar voice.” His performance was triumph of style and nuance (those infinite inflexions), and – as usual – totally convincing dramatic commitment.

I have a problem with Angela Denoke: her hard, far-from-beautiful voice seems to me so wobbly as to blur her intonation (she often sounds sharp), but it must be just me as everyone else seems to find her perfect, and her acting was a faultless as everyone else’s in this show. The other lead singers were impeccable: Jon Villars a swaggering giant thug in spangled black tee-shirt and punky Iroquois haircut boomed out magnificently and the tenors simply sailed through their hair-raising high notes.

The orchestra was on top form and Cambreling's approach was admirably analytical but perhaps a bit loud, often risking to swamp even these singers.

Christoph Marthaler’s “thing” is what you might call the everyday tragedy of (Eastern European) trailer trash. When he applies it to Le Nozze or Traviata he usually gets booed; but his signature style (with hyper-realistic contemporary sets and costumes by Anna Viebrock and a complex, stark, abruptly-changing lighting scheme) sits more easily with Katia Kabanova or Wozzeck.

The set, this time, is a giant industrial marquee imprisoned in the courtyard of a grimy factory. It’s a canteen or a social club of some sort, run by Wozzeck. The main entrance, at the rear, is via a curtain of vertical strips of heavy, transparent plastic, of the kind you find in factories. Through the also-plastic sides of the marquee we see children bouncing up and down on inflatable castles and people moving to and fro. There are assorted wooden and plastic tables and chairs. Wozzeck’s counter is at the back, complete with a poster displaying available ice-creams and lollipops. Pastel paper lanterns (which come on and off to highlight the action) have been strung from the roof, among the industrial arc-lights, in a pathetic attempt to bring some gaiety to this grim cafeteria, where all the action takes place. And while it takes place, a whole world of stage business goes on in the background, changing in nature with the passage of time through the day: the children run in for a drink, a little girl arrives clutching her skates to present her trophy triumphantly to her mother; zombie-like workers settle in groups and silently get blind drunk.

At the start of the opera, Wozzeck, in army trousers and pullover with an orange security armband, is shaving the captain’s head. He scuttles about among the tables and chairs (“Slowly, Wozzeck!”) obsessively arranging and rearranging the children’s shoes (“No shoes, we can go barefoot to hell”) under the tables (until his final outburst of madness, when he kicks them to all sides of the stage), collecting and washing and wiping glasses, moving bottles and cases around in a frenzied attempt to live a normal life, belied by his tics and his habit of stopping to rub one boot on the opposite calf.

It’s often said that Marthaler’s stagings are realistic, but this is only partly true. The pianist who waits at an out-of-tune upright to the right of the stage through most of the opera clicks his music light on and off but rarely (of course) plays a note. The crowds, while often natural enough, at times simply sit, zombie-like as I said, staring before them. The children, at the end, don’t play but line up rigidly at the tables, as if at school benches, and recite the final lines in chorus while the child cowers beside the piano in exactly the spot his father was publicly humiliated at by the drum-major (such consistency of detail is a Marthaler hallmark).

So really, a directing tour de force with a great cast. Why I remained unmoved is therefore a mystery. Were all the goings-on distracting? Was the character of Wozzeck lost among them in the vast set? Was it too bright and colourful for this dark work? Was I annoyed by the constant mis-match between the text and what was actually going on on stage? Was I simply not in the mood for Wozzeck? No idea. Perhaps I should have bought tickets for another night. Perhaps it will work better for me, with close-ups, on video (if it comes out, I’ll certainly buy it). I just don’t know; all I know is that I emerged “sur ma faim,” as the French say. A mystery, but opera's like that, isn't it?

Maestro Wenarto sings Wozzeck.

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