Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is the Guernica of the opera world -apocalyptic, boldly declaring a new way of representation, and resistant to simple interpretation. While some viewers called Guernica “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted”, and the dream of a madman, others championed it as a landmark in art history.
Berg used Georg Buchner’s nineteenth century play Woyzeck, based on the case of real life barber who stabbed his mistress in fit of jealousy and was subsequently executed, as the basis of his libretto. Throbbing with the disillusioned spirit of the Paris uprisings of 1830, Buchner’s manuscript vanished from sight immediately after his death in 1837.
The faded, nearly illegible text was rediscovered and published in 1879, and, not until the First World War and the 1920s did Buchner’s drama became widely known. Woyzeck has exercised a tremendous influence on expressionist art and literature.
Woyzeck is the first real tragedy of low life. It repudiates an assumption implicit in Greek, Elizabethan, and neo-classic drama: the assumption that tragic suffering is the privilege of those who are in high places. The play’s scene structure shows the influence of the German Romantic Sturm und Drang movement and the content of Shakespeare’s Othello. However Buchner, inverted the character of Desdemona: Marie is poverty-stricken and morally loose.
Woyzeck is considered the first modern drama. As George Steiner notes in The Death of Tragedy, “Buchner was the first who brought to bear on the lowest order of men the solemnity and compassion of tragedy. He has had successors: Tolstoy, Gorky, Synge, and Brecht. But none has equaled the nightmarish force of Woyzeck.” 1
Appropriately, Alban Berg chose the first modern drama as the foundation for what would be the first avant-garde opera, Wozzeck.
Berg selected 15 of Buchner’s 25 scenes and arranged them into three acts of five scenes each. While in Buchner’s drama the hero’s soul, as Steiner observes, unlike previous eloquent tragic heroes, “is nearly mute and it is the lameness of Woyzeck’s words which conveys his suffering.” Berg’s haunting music gives Woyzeck “a cunning orchestration, speech to his soul.” 2
In The New Criterion, critic Eric Simpson summarizes Berg’s operatic achievement. “The score itself is one of the great musical achievements of the twentieth century, though admittedly is not for all hearers, … it is nonetheless an aesthetic and emotional ordeal, unlikely to lift the spirits but a perfect bet for listeners eager for a challenge.” 3
In both the play and the opera, the idea of the tragic hero first devised by Aeschylus remains: the forces governing human life are seen to lie outside the realm of reason and justice. The Greeks had their gods, the European Judeo-Christian world had God, post-World War I culture named these forces heredity and environmental and economic determinism.
While on the surface Wozzeck presents a world of nihilism, closer examination verifies Michael Billingham’s observation that it is “a naturalistic tragedy, a damning social critique, a debate on free will and determinism. Hold it up to the light and it always takes on a different color.”
One of the most prominent colors in the Lyric Opera’s production highlights Wozzeck seeing what no one else in his city can see: the Biblically prophesied End of Days is upon the land.
Though the characters seem to live in a world totally devoid of God, fragments of scripture dot the landscape, pointing to profoundly mysterious forces governing the world.
In Act I scene 3 Marie asks, “What is it, Franz?” You look so distraught?”
Wozzeck is aware of what those around him are not. For some reason, his heart alone has not become blind to the truth of the world’s existence. In the darkness of others’ hearts, “the world appears to be nothing more than raw competition for consumption and survival.” 4
Wozzeck perceives something else.
Wozzeck: “I’ve worked it out. There was a formation up there – the sky all aglow! There is so much to be solved. And now all is darkness…Marie, and something else too…Perhaps… (Mysteriously) Is it not written: “Behold the smoke did rise from the land, as if from a furnace.”5 And it followed me all the way here up to the town (in great excitement) What’s going to happen? My boy… My boy… I have to go.”
Wozzeck is seeing the visitation and destruction by God of a corrupt and debauched city, as described in both Genesis 19:28 and Revelation 9:2:
And he looked towards Sodom and Gomorrah, and towards the surrounding country, and saw, and behold a flame went up from the earth, as the smoke of a furnace
And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened because of the smoke of the pit. 6
Marie hopes for forgiveness, like Mary Magdalene, but Wozzeck can only see her as Revelation’s Great Whore of Babylon:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, and THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.
Wozzeck, the opera’s tragic Everyman, thus finds himself trapped between the disintegration of his degenerate world and the deterioration of his troubled mind.
In Acts 3 and 4, both literal and metaphorical rivers of blood begin to engulf him, again echoing Revelation:
Then the second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it became blood as of a dead man; and every living creature in the sea died. Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters saying: “You are righteous, O Lord, The One who is and who was and who is to be, Because You have judged these things. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, And You have given them blood to drink. For it is their just due. 7
Director Sir David McVicar, his scene designer Vicki Mortimer, and his lighting designer Paule Constable have made the impending apocalypse visual. Center stage Ms. Mortimer has erected a large monument to the dead, past and to come, which dominates the space, an antenna braced to receive God’s descending fire. Surrounding the monument are silhouettes of Hiroshima-grey cityscapes, anticipating the scope of the impending judgement. Aspects of Bertolt Brecht’s “Stage Design for the Epic Theater” (1951) are employed: a half curtain which quickly and effectively reveals and hides the suggestive, yet naturalistic, set pieces and properties. Ms. Constable’s lighting paradoxically emphasizes the darkness pervading the city’s souls.
Sir Andrew Davis’ love for Berg’s music is evident in the way the orchestra and singers embrace the difficult, complex music to powerful effect. Polish bass–baritone Tomasz Konieczny presents a devastating portrait of a man torn apart trying to reconcile the passions of everyday existence in a debauched city. His powerful performance ranges from quiet intimacy to full-voiced rage. His stage equal is the German soprano Angela Denoke, with her poignant portrayal of Marie, a German common-law wife and mother desperate to survive in an unjust city. The supporting caricatured characters are played as fully and expertly as possible by Gerhard Siegel (Captain), Brindley Sherratt (Doctor), and Stefan Vinke (Drum Major).
No contemporary opera has been more thoroughly debated than Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Of the first performance, the reviewer of Deutsche Zeitung remarked: “As I was leaving the state opera I had the sensation of having been not in a public theatre, but in an insane asylum….I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community”. On the other hand, another critic described the music as “drawn from Wozzeck’s poor, worried, inarticulate chaotic soul. It is a vision in sound.”
The audience must still decide at this lovingly crafted production.
Through Berg’s music, the Buchner/Berg story echoes the original great cry of Sodom and Gomorrah to God from the city’s “exceedingly grievous sin”. Like the original Biblical story, Wozzeck reveals the city to be a breeding ground for injustice, exploitation, misogyny, and sexual perversion, awaiting the immanent judgement of God.
The Davis/McVicar Wozzeck concludes with the suffering son of Marie, a boy of many sorrows, taking up his inherited burden.
1 Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. London: Faber and Faber, 1961
3 Eric C. Simpson, The New Criterion, November 2, 2015.
4 Fr. Thomas Freeman, “The Elves Have Left the Building”, http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/11/03/the-elves-have-left-the-builing/
5 Genesis 19:28
6 Revelation 9:2: 2
7 Revelation 16:3-6: