McBurney's Wozzeck magnified by Rattle's direction

Concerts 13.07.2023

Alban Berg's Wozzeck enters the repertoire of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The work is performed at the Grand Théâtre de Provence in a new production by Simon McBurney, with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in the pit, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

It's a long way from the fragmentary play by Georg Büchner (1813-1837), written at the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, toAlban Berg 's opera, premiered in 1925. Swept away by typhus at the age of 24, Büchner left a manuscript in which the order of the scenes was not fixed, as well as two sketches of the drama offering noticeable differences. Based on Karl Emil Franzos' critical edition of Büchner's complete works, Paul Landau published a new version of the text in 1910, under the title Wozzeck (instead of Woyzeck), from which Berg, who attended the Viennese premiere of the play in 1914, wrote his own libretto. In so doing, he borrowed the model of ancient tragedy, articulating the drama in three successive phases - Exposition, Peripatetic and Catastrophic - experienced through the prism of the tormented psyche of the soldier Wozzeck. The composition, which began in 1917, was interrupted during the war years (Berg was sent for officer training in Lower Austria), whose traumatic experience was reflected in the writing. The opera premiered in 1925 at the Berlin Staatsoper under the baton of Erich Kleiber, after 130 rehearsals!

The story, inspired by a true story, is that of a brave soldier, Wozzeck, who lives in a common-law relationship with his companion Marie, with whom he has had a child. A victim of hallucinations, he is preyed upon by those around him, despised by his superiors - a Captain and a Doctor with bestial irony - and deceived by Marie, who lets herself be seduced by the Drum Major. Consumed by jealousy and carried away by his morbid impulses, he kills his mistress before drowning in the swamp where he went to find the murder knife... 

Darkness and despair

The set is plunged into darkness for the minutes before the beginning of the sound impact. Military personnel stand at attention in helmets, silently waiting for the distant barking of a dog. Black-and-white shapes on the side walls add to the strangeness of the picture. Wozzeck stands out from the group of soldiers. He is with his captain in the first scene, where he is subjected to his invective ("Wozzeck always looks like someone possessed," the uniformed soldier sermonizes). The presence of a junior captain mimicking his elder's gestures is intriguing! Equally strange and striking is the second, highly successful scene with friend Andres, in which we see men harnessed to wooden poles that collapse to the ground, while Wozzeck ponders the ominous nature of the place: "Fire! Fire! Fire! The space blazes under the effects of lighting (Paul Anderson) and video (Will Duke).

As much as the tormented interiority of the character, it is the political and military dimension that is emphasized in McBurney's highly detailed staging. With his impressive stature, Christian Gerhaher plays a dark, desperate Wozzeck, often with his back arched, pitiful even when he arrives at Marie's house. With his bundle of wood on his back, and haunted by the images that run through him, he speaks with her in a short scene in which the incommunicability of the two beings is clearly expressed. With her child (Thomasz Kumiega), whom she rejects as much as she cherishes, Marie is installed on the floor on a stage whose configuration is modified live by a team of stage managers for each new scene. Wozzeck, for his part, is constantly present, whether on the triple spinner installed in the center of the space, or behind the door (another important set element), isolated from the crowd, where he watches Marie dance with the Drum Major. 

Intelligence and passion

In the midst of a full orchestra, where percussion (the xylophone in particular) gives off its premonitory signals, the Leitmotifs (driving motifs) attributed to each character pass by: the Captain's perverse oboe, the Doctor's insidious cello, and so on. They play an essential role in the unfolding drama, clearly outlined in the analytical reading offered by Sir Simon Rattle at the head of a gleaming LSO. Never before have the mysteries of Bergian writing, the structural foundations of the work borrowed from classical musical forms, been so probed and heard, without slowing down the dramaturgical flow: fastidious rhythmics, elegant metrical conduct and transparent textures. The colors are sumptuous, distributed to all the desks, including that of the tuba, very much in vogue in the incidental music of Act II (where the musicians rub shoulders with the singers) and that of the Cabaret (which we hear more than we see), whose sonorities falter in the image of a Wozzeck with blood on his hands. Mary's prayer (the words of the Bible are displayed on the walls) borders on emotion, played with great delicacy at the start of Act III, where Berg weaves a fugue between the soprano's voice and the orchestra's strings. Rattle redoubles the care and expressiveness of the lines in the wonderful interludes linking the scenes within the three acts. The last is a Bergian reverence to that other master Gustav Mahler, the ultimate vision of a dying world as Wozzeck slowly disappears into the depths of the swamp, one of the most haunting pages of the evening.

A top-flight cast 

The magnificently timbred voices all assume, with insolent virtuosity, the escarpments of the melodic line, from the parlé-chanté to the arioso and right up to Marie's bel canto. A little monolithic in his anti-heroic posture, Christian Gerhaher is no less impressive, whose vocal potential seems infinite, from the dark grain of his baritone register to the limitless extensions of his high notes. The same qualities can be heard in the two executioners, Brindley Sherratt 's broad baritone (Doktor) and Peter Hoare 's piercing tenor (Hauptmann). In his red jacket, Drum Major Thomas Blondelle ("like a bull through the torso", Marie tells us) is clear and offensive to a fault. Between revolt and maternal tenderness, anxiety and despair, the voice of Swedish soprano Malin Byström (Marie) is as flexible as it is seductive, lending both fragility and sensuality to her character. Less in demand, soprano Héloïse Mas (Margret) and tenor Robert Lewis (Andres) are just as valiant and convincing. The Estonian men's chorus(Philharmonic Chamber Choir) is beautiful enough to make stones weep in that all-too-brief moment (scene 5 of Act II) when the men's voices fade into a rumor, like a ghostly, fantastic breath filling the space.

"Marie's child plays horse on a stick", say the didascalies of Berg's libretto in the opera's final, heart-rending scene. In McBurney 's staging, it's Captain Junior, reappearing in his white uniform and military cap, who articulates Hop! Hop! in his place, leaving the child mute and frozen in his body until the lights go out: it's the poor kid's turn... 

Michèle Tosi

Festival d'Aix-en Provence, Grand Théâtre de Provence on 10-07-2023
Alban Berg (1885-1935): Wozzeck, opera in three acts based on Georg Büchner's drama Woyzeck; libretto by Alban Berg; staging Simon McBurney; scenography, Miriam Buether; costumes, Christina Cunningham; lighting, Paul Anderson; choreography, directorial collaboration, Leah Hausman; video, Will Duke; dramaturgy, Gerard McBurney. Wozzeck, Christian Gerhaher; Marie, Malin Byström; Le Tambour-major, Thomas Blondelle; Doktor, Brindley Sherratt; Hauptmann, Der Narr, Peter Hoare; Andres, Robert Lewis; Margret, Héloïse Mas; Handwerksbursch 1, Matthieu Toulouse; Handwerksbursch 2; Tomasz Kumiega; L'enfant de Marie, Lenny Bardet; un Soldat, Danila Frantou. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir ; conductor, Lodewijk van der Ree ; maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône ; conductor Samuel Coquard ; London Symphony Orchestra ; conductor Sir Simon Rattle. 

Photos © Monika Ritterhaus


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