The stage is dominated by a precarious mountain of platforms, staircase fragments and discarded furniture that, with the help of stage-filling, smoky charcoal animations, shifts during Berg’s brooding interludes from inside to outside, from tavern to barracks to bombed-out heath. The searing final D-minor interlude is echoed onstage in an orgy of charcoal explosions. (The sets are by Sabine Theunissen; costumes, Greta Goiris; video, Catherine Meyburgh; and lighting, Urs Schönebaum. Mr. Kentridge’s co-director is Luc De Wit.)
This is a world of crashed airplanes, flickering maps of troop movements and the tension and violence born of endless waiting. Other directors have made of “Wozzeck” a more general societal indictment; Mr. Kentridge indicts war, war, war. A recurring image shows the young son of Wozzeck and Marie, his common-law wife, aging into a soldier, his face thickened by injuries, like something out of the grotesque battlefield prints of Otto Dix or George Grosz.
That son is depicted onstage by a gangly puppet in a gas mask, perhaps a nod to one of Mr. Kentridge’s first collaborative ventures: a 1992 adaptation of the Büchner play called “Woyzeck on the Highveld,” with the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. (Rich evidence of the full sweep of his artistic career — the theater central from the beginning — is on view until November in a retrospective at Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne.)
Beyond that melancholy puppet, Mr. Kentridge doesn’t stint the piece’s forlorn, savage humor, with the office of the Doctor (Jens Larsen) jammed into an armoire and the helmet of the Captain (the piercing Gerhard Siegel) detonating in an enormous feather plume. But for all its antic fancifulness, this is also the truest, least over-the-top “Wozzeck” I’ve seen.
Played with mellow disbelief and sung with parched, wounded tone by the baritone Matthias Goerne, the title character doesn’t start off, as he does in many stagings (and often by Mr. Goerne), as a wild-eyed lunatic. He’s rather a kind of stymied artist on and in whom pressure slowly builds. Marie, here the young, penetrating soprano Asmik Grigorian, is a more girlish and irresponsible, less sympathetically maternal presence than usual. Theirs is not a collision of archetypes, but of people.
This was the third opera I heard here over the past few days featuring the Vienna Philharmonic, the Salzburg Festival’s house band, in the pit. Led with relentless restraint by Vladimir Jurowski, the orchestra was as virtuosic as it was under Mariss Jansons for Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and Riccardo Muti for Verdi’s “Aida.”
There is no ensemble quite as colorfully brutal yet agile in the dyspeptic accompaniment of the opening scene, issuing angular interjections and then dissolving into trembling electricity as Wozzeck bemoans how difficult it is for the poor to be virtuous. The frosty vaporization of the strings as Wozzeck is about to murder Marie had terrifying precision and poise.
But unlike in “Lady Macbeth” and “Aida” — and unlike the “Wozzeck” I heard this ensemble play as the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera a few years ago — here virtuosity was the means, not the end. Sonic effects didn’t seem detached from what was happening onstage, a vision of the pit as its own private world of hermetic beauties; instead, the orchestra acted as an enhancer and interlocutor. The violin solo as Marie read to her child from the Bible wasn’t self-regarding, as some of the Philharmonic’s opera playing has been this week, but intensifying.
Despite this orchestra’s myriad seductions, Mr. Jurowski resisted the urge to overplay; the emphasis was on guiding a coherent, accumulating drama. Climaxes — like the unison B note that crescendos to full-ensemble fury, and that final D-minor outpouring — earned their impact honestly.
The partying tavern crowd not long before the opera’s end is a danse macabre, one of the sprawling parades of humanity that Mr. Kentridge has long taken as a theme. But where is the procession headed? The production aptly captures the Europe of the early 1920s, the world in which “Wozzeck” was born: a dazed shambles, on the verge of still more suffering.
The audience seemed stunned at the end, yet grateful. For my part — and this doesn’t often happen, even after the rawest operas — I needed a walk in the mild evening, some deep breaths and a beer.
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