Becoming the Nightmare


an opera by Alban Berg, in a production by William Kentridge, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, December 27, 2019–January 22, 2020
Elza van den Heever as Marie and Peter Mattei as Wozzeck in Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Elza van den Heever as Marie and Peter Mattei as Wozzeck in Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera

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…

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