Berg: Wozzeck

COMPOSERS: Berg
LABELS: Arthaus Music
ALBUM TITLE: Berg
WORKS: Wozzeck
PERFORMER: Dale Duesing, Ronald Hamilton, Barry Banks, Dieter Bunschuh, Frode Olsen, William Saetre, Kristine Ciesinski; Frankfurt Opera Choir & Museumorchester/Sylvain Cambreling; dir. Peter Mussbach (Frankfurt, 1996)
CATALOGUE NO: 102 031
In this 1996 Frankfurt Opera production, the Captain teeters about on platform heels, squawking about eternity in a falsetto and white face-paint, padded pink pantaloons and tight cross-garters, like some commedia dell’arte caricature of a human capon. The Doctor is a Coppelius-like charlatan in flapping black swallow-tails, ebony cane and dark glasses. A crimson-veiled death’s head lords it over the drunken dancing in the tavern garden, as if it were a masque by Poe, before Andres whips aside the veil to reveal the village idiot cradling the skull, Hamlet-style, while half-lifesize marionettes of Marie and the Drum Major canoodle openly before Wozzeck’s eyes.

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Props are few, sets minimal, all are painted in bright primary colours, starkly lit against the enveloping blackness. The action, bar the last scene, is confined to a tiny square box set within the wider proscenium arch – a neon-framed opening out of which are projected, during the interludes, a series of hologrammatic images of a huge, deeply-pitted block of stone spinning on its axis through outer space.

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It’s all very intense and focused, but also rather coldly calculating. By reducing Wozzeck’s moralising tormentors to stage grotesques, presenting his personal tragedy as if it were part of some cosmic comedy, Mussbach drains the work of its essential humanity. You’ll find a more properly compassionate reading of this great work in Adolf Dresen’s 1987 Vienna State Opera production, just as economically staged (in suitably shabby socio-realist sets), far better sung (with devastatingly direct performances from Franz Grundheber and Hildegard Behrens) and with an impassioned yet refined reading of Berg’s ravishing orchestral textures from Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. Mark Pappenheim