Alban Berg’s Wozzeck has no overture. In its place, in William Kentridge’s new production at the Met, there is the set on which the curtain goes up in silence while the house lights are still on and the audience chatting in their seats or milling in the aisles. On first glance it seems an homage to misalignment and clutter, a warren of carpentry thrown together out of discarded planks, its walkways awry and awkward of access, its open areas tentative and ungenerous. It might be many things: a shantytown raised on the outskirts of some soulless metropolis, a playground for homeless children, the remnants of an abandoned industrial site, or—more to the point of Kentridge’s conception—a network of entrenchments in a war zone.1
It offers nothing like privacy, no place where any individual or couple might get away from outside harassments and intrusions. Yet it is riddled with unseen passages through which its inhabitants can scurry, disappearing into one hole and emerging from a different one on the other side of the stage. Between scenes, an overworked complement of orderlies, janitors, and medical personnel emerge and set about rearranging bits of debris and random furniture (chairs, stepladders) to make temporary clearings approximating Wozzeck’s succession of settings: military headquarters, doctor’s office, bedroom, field, tavern, barracks dormitory, and the moonlit riverbank where Wozzeck finally kills the unfaithful Marie. Through all these makeshift transformations, the set remains the same encampment, never to be escaped from. In his characteristic style, Kentridge extends the space with a constantly changing extravaganza of projections—movies, drawings, animations, photographs, maps, swirls of smoke—but these are no more graspable than the hallucinations that bedevil the opera’s protagonist. An effect is created, simultaneously, of head-spinning multiplicity and bare-bones deprivation: a carnival with nothing to celebrate, a ghostliness without any actual ghosts.
It is a stage world built from fragments, just as Berg made his opera from the fragments of the play known as Woyzeck left by the twenty-three-year-old Georg Büchner at his death from typhus in 1837.2 Even in its incomplete state (or perhaps in part because of it), Wozzeck resembled, by the time Berg saw it performed in May 1914, both an early modernist manifestation and a foreshadowing of the mood of his own world—and a prophecy, as it turned out, of worse to come. The opera is not so much an adaptation of Büchner’s text as a further and fuller realization of it. Berg engages in a ghostly belated collaboration with Büchner, the bearer of an aesthetic sensibility so eerily in advance of its own moment. If the audacity of his music continues to astonish, the play he so brilliantly compressed refuses likewise to settle into the contours of a domesticated classic. Büchner registers a disturbance and instability that resist categorization by genre or thesis.
In dramatizing the crime of an ex-soldier executed in 1824 for murdering his mistress, he may well have achieved (in the words of his translator Victor Price) “the first clinically observed case of psychosis in literature,”3 relying in part on judicial records to do so, but Büchner went far beyond the reportorial. Zigzagging between the matter-of-fact and the grotesque, inserting bits of popular song and folklore, he made each scene a brief isolated shard, as if to mirror the splintering of Woyzeck’s consciousness. With the lurid clarity of a fairground poster, he situated Woyzeck’s gathering madness within the manias and casual brutalities of a public order upheld by militarism (the craven and idiotic Captain) and pseudoscience (the callous and obsessive Doctor who exploits Woyzeck as a human guinea pig).4
The jagged textures and drastic tonal leaps of Büchner’s language, its mixing of everyday banality and obscenity with apocalyptic outbursts and proto-absurdist monologues, make it a challenge for actors. Berg’s musical setting affirms that perhaps it needed all along to be sung—but only in a style shaped specifically for that purpose. Throughout its one hundred minutes, Wozzeck sustains a musical discourse whose every element seems invented only for sounding out Büchner’s words as if to test their implications, and pushes further, in the orchestral interludes linking scene to scene, into what lies beyond language altogether. From start to finish, Wozzeck collides with the limits of operatic singing, and by extension with the limits of speech.
Here every human exchange marks a pressure point—except that no actual exchanges occur, only aggressions and evasions, missed cues and unheard cries, empty boasts and sadistic needling, in a frustrated swirl in which language forever fails to connect with any intended hearer. Every message misses its mark. An exception might be made for the God to whom Marie, on the eve of her murder, prays for forgiveness for betraying Wozzeck with the vainglorious Drum-Major; but the opera’s long explicit sermon is delivered by a tavern drunk who in this production passes out after his declaration that all is vanity. Likewise, the only extended passage of harmonized choral singing is a raucous hunting song drowning out Wozzeck’s cry as he sees Marie dancing with her lover: “Why doesn’t God put out the sun?”
Wozzeck, the harassed and humiliated orderly—ostensibly the uneducated victim nearly incapable of rational discourse—says more than anyone and finds no one who wants to listen except for the Doctor, for whom his incipient psychosis provides an object of study that may bring professional glory. Wozzeck’s fellow recruit Andres urges him repeatedly to stop talking, the Captain tells him he thinks too much, and Marie’s perception that “he’s going crazy with his ideas” only makes her more open to the Drum-Major’s seduction. In the first scene—after he accedes in apparent submissiveness to the Captain’s rambling monologue on the horror of time with repeated iterations of “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann”—it is Wozzeck who has the most lucid verbal utterance of the whole work with his explanation of how hard it is to be poor: “I believe that if we went to Heaven, we would be put to work to make the thunder.” Not only does he think, he is the only one around who does, for as long as he can manage it.
The breaking point follows immediately. The next time we see him, out in the fields with Andres, he is already in full-blown delusion, howling in terror, haunted by toadstools, Freemasons, a rolling head, fire rising into the sky. The snatches of song with which Andres tries to deflect his companion’s madness is undermined as the orchestral underscoring drags his melody into tonal distortion. It’s as if we were hearing it through Wozzeck’s ears. The surroundings become audibly destabilized. As Wozzeck seizes on the notion that the ground underneath them is hollow, the orchestra enacts its own foundering. The chasms he evokes crack open between the notes. As the weight of the music comes down, space itself seems to capsize, with the wayward angles of Sabine Theunissen’s set adding to the effect. Wherever Wozzeck strays in this landscape of obstacles and detritus, he sets off minefields of disruption, all of it registered in sounds that can never come together for long before breaking apart into contending elements. What is beyond articulation explodes finally into sonic violence.
The opera, like Büchner’s play, is set in a provincial Hessian town in the post-Napoleonic era, a place steeped in frustration, boredom, and petty oppression. Kentridge has shifted the action to Germany on the brink of World War I, the period when Berg was first inspired to write his opera—a reasonable move, since it can scarcely be separated from the war. Between Berg’s initial sketches and the work’s completion in 1921 came three years of war service, during which the frail and asthmatic composer, stationed on the Hungarian border, suffered a physical collapse and was transferred to a desk position in the war ministry. His dealings with the military bureaucracy seem to have been scarcely less oppressive than life in the training camp. Writing to his wife in 1918, he likened himself to Wozzeck, “since I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact humiliated.”5 If not explicitly a commentary on the war, Wozzeck’s unwavering through-line of foreboding and desperation is at least thoroughly marked by it.
In Kentridge’s design—which bears only the most stylized resemblance to a naturalistic period staging—imagery of the impending war is already pervasive, scattered around the stage in multiple phantom permutations. At some moments the set resembles a sort of end-times advent calendar whose windows open and close without warning, an impression redoubled by the narrow cabinet-like structure that looms on the upper left, its doors popping open to provide first a medical examination room and later an overcrowded niche for the tavern’s dance band. Right at the beginning Wozzeck operates a projector and shows a disconnected film loop to the Captain (an action that substitutes for his shaving him, as in the play and libretto). Thereafter, the visual cues arrive in a scattering of locations and undergo drastic changes of scale, sometimes expanding to fill the upper reaches of the stage, like flickering pictures on a cave wall: a zeppelin, a crashed airplane, a child in uniform, silhouettes of soldiers on a battlefield fighting and falling, crutches, head wounds, amputations, a mass of severed heads, burned fields, bombarded cities, and everywhere gas masks, both in the projections and worn by crowds of servants and Red Cross nurses and tavern revelers.
Not all these recurrent images are so obviously tied to the war. Some—of horses, or dancers, or a dark forest—are more enigmatic, as if to preserve the sense of a conduit for a steadily mutating unconscious. To some extent, we might take all these flashes as Wozzeck’s premonitory visions, catching glimpses amid his own mental chaos of the war before it has arrived, but the correspondences are by no means so tightly established. The visual environment is more like a free-floating miasma within which the people of the opera unknowingly dwell.
The miasma can attain a paradoxical beauty. During Marie’s mournful monologue at the beginning of act 3, a giant projected map of Ypres and vicinity—a region that saw the first large-scale use of poison gas, and whose casualties would number well over a million soldiers in the course of the war—takes on the appearance of a starry celestial landscape as the lights turn up on it. It feels like a supremely lyrical moment, yet flipping the surface of the earth to make it a sky is another of Kentridge’s continual enactments of upheaval and collapse—the earth becomes the sky when you are falling down on it. Throughout, there is an impression that for all the kaleidoscopic illumination the whole opera is taking place in darkness. The light we see is never that of day but of projections and distant explosions and sweeping searchlights, or perhaps of those annihilating fires that dominate Wozzeck’s hallucinations and whose smoke sometimes rises skyward.
To have paid full attention to each fleeting pictorial event would have been at the expense of the opera. At many points, I was peripherally aware of visual activity but remained too intensely focused on what the singers were doing—or, more precisely, on what was happening to the singers in the orchestral environment in which they were gripped—to even think of looking away. Wozzeck is a work whose musical and dramatic elements move inexorably toward a vortex, as if everything were being swept by gravitational force into the void evoked by Wozzeck as he begins to envision murder: “Man is an abyss, it makes you dizzy to look down into it.”
Finally Wozzeck feels like an opera about destructive power, but it remains an open question where the power resides. The figures of authority and force—the Captain (Gerhard Siegel), the Doctor (Christian Van Horn), the Drum-Major (Christopher Ventris)—are as hapless as those they dominate: risible puppets, incapable of perceiving either the world or themselves with any clarity or wisdom. Completely defined by their functions, they cannot be imagined to possess anything like an inner life. In its place, they have an inescapable vocal presence, here realized to the full: the Captain’s mix of maudlin self-pity and nasty humor, the Doctor’s megalomaniac cruelty, the Drum-Major’s bullying vanity. The soldiers and the drinkers in the tavern are indifferent onlookers. Wozzeck’s friend Andres and Marie’s neighbor Margret are at last devoid of sympathy.
Only Wozzeck and Marie—the one descending into homicidal madness, the other helplessly torn between conflicting impulses—can be felt as fully human, which is to say weak, unstable, fear-ridden, superstitious, adrift. The power of the roles is in their powerlessness, as from scene to scene they become progressively more unmoored from any possibility of staving off catastrophe. As with everything else in Wozzeck, anything resembling happiness or even order ended before the opera began. That minimal happiness, for Wozzeck and Marie, would have been a shared affection that led to the birth of a child that Wozzeck will now not even look at.
The child, in Kentridge’s production, is essentially a block of wood wearing a gas mask. He explained it in an interview as a pragmatic decision: “How do you deal with a child onstage? Do you have an 8-year-old pretending to be a 3-year-old? It’s always artificial.”6 The “child” is moved about by an unobtrusive puppeteer, after the fashion of the Japanese bunraku theater. Yet while in bunraku performances the puppets take on an uncanny aura of life, here the block of wood remains stubbornly inert—an effect that may be deliberate, given Wozzeck’s inability to be a parent and Marie’s erratic mood shifts as, for instance, she tries to coax the child to go to sleep. The gas mask seals the impression that we are seeing what the child is to be: a future victim of the war. It’s only that, never having seen him as altogether alive, it is harder for us to appreciate the penetrating force of his voice the only time it is heard, chanting “Hop hop! Hop hop! Hop hop!” on his hobbyhorse. It is the opera’s last vocal moment, that most vulnerable of voices leading the way toward silence.
Elza van den Heever as Marie projected an instinctive strength that persisted in the face of constant erosion, a strength lacking any circumstance in which it might express itself. Thoroughly alert to what was going on around her, she restlessly shifted ground from moment to moment, pitying Wozzeck even as she already began to distance herself from him, defying the Drum-Major and then surrendering to him, wavering between rough self-assertion as she dances in the tavern and fearful guilt as she says her prayers. Van den Heever conveyed the integrity of the role through all these rapid changes, her fundamental solidity all that connects Wozzeck to the world.
What we undergo is the loss of that connection, experienced in the most personal way through the medium of Wozzeck as both murderer and sacrificial victim. It is a foreordained ritual that can be meaningful only to the extent that it is not received with detachment. Wozzeck suffers from nightmares, only to finally become himself a nightmare, someone who “runs through the world like an open razor,” in the Captain’s phrase, passing through stages of paranoia and murderous jealousy until he is an unstoppable destructive force. The fascination of Peter Mattei’s performance was in how he sustained a core of damaged sensitivity throughout the process of being torn apart piece by piece. There was a softness (deceptive in view of the violence he harbors) to the apparently defenseless way he carried himself in the early scenes, like someone who has learned to hold himself aloof, as if folded inside himself, to avoid being hurt any more than he already has been.
The beauty of Mattei’s vocal tone became a testimony to a barely preserved interiority—the phantom of what was once a closer relation to the world—and finally a measure of his actual pain. The Sprechgesang passages are tenuously balanced between speech and song, more songlike than speechlike, a song stretched to the point of dissolution. The role demands an extraordinary capability to show the progressive loss of capability. Enacting that dissolution, Mattei was able to express a kind of wounded wonderment that any of this should be happening, that his thoughts are no longer able to process the world, that somehow he will find himself stabbing to death the woman he loves and wading ever deeper into a river to retrieve a bloody knife until he is overtaken by silence.
Performed without interruption, Wozzeck is note for note as relentlessly engaging as any opera—relentless as a forceful stranger dragging you along by your coat. The place to which you are dragged is compounded equally of terror and compassion. Anything that might seem an interlude, such as the sodden effusions of the apprentices in the tavern, is only a notch in a further descent that could not be more systematic. Berg’s intricate musical structures—passacaglia, rondo, fugue, and so on—affirm that even accelerating disorder is a rigorously formal process, and that nothing we hear is accidental. The Met orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin ensured that nothing of that design was lost. In the overwhelming force of Berg’s score, it was possible at every moment to hear the numberless precisions and delicacies of which that force was made. The music itself creates a landscape more solid and cavernous than any stage set or visual flourish could provide. The variegated dissonance is mineralogical in its unyieldingness, and beautiful in a way that remains uncanny.
Berg’s title apparently derives from a transcription error in the earliest edition of his manuscript. ↩
Victor Price, introduction to Georg Büchner, Danton’s Death, Leonce and Lena, Woyzeck (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. xix. ↩
Considering the monstrousness of the play’s Doctor, it is interesting to note that Büchner was himself descended from a distinguished line of physicians, and in his brief life obtained some recognition for his work on animal anatomy. ↩
Quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), p. 68. ↩
Quoted in Jason Farago, “An Opera of Trench Warfare,” The New York Times, December 29, 2019. ↩