Matthias Goerne, Asmik Grigorian, Frances Pappas, John Daszak, Mauro Peter, Gerhard Siegel, Jens Larsen; Vienna State Opera Choir; Salzburg Festival & Theatre Children’s Choir; Vienna Philharmonic/Vladimir Jurowski; dir. William Kentridge (Salzburg, 2017)
Harmonia Mundi HMD 9809053-54 101 mins (DVD/Blu-ray)
Despite excessive jump-cutting in the editing (as usual today), William Kentridge’s Salzburg staging of Berg’s masterwork has transferred well to DVD. The single stage set – a shattered and dystopian First World War townscape – relies heavily on film and slide-projection, most of it fairly dark, which shows a notch better on Blu-ray. There are details that irritate: in the opening scene, Wozzeck is turning a film projector for the Captain instead of shaving him, making nonsense of the libretto’s later reference to exactly this. On the whole, though, the staging and design remarkably parallel the flaring power and virtuosity of Berg’s score, here performed to a standard that’s as good as it gets.
Matthias Goerne’s Wozzeck is a signature role for him, and while the passage of time shows in a strained top note or two, he gives a masterly portrayal of a simple man whose life is destroyed by things he can do nothing about – hopeless poverty, vicious militarism, and his own overheated imagination (mirrored with alarming brilliance in the slide-projection). Asmik Grigorian’s Marie offers a similar masterclass in how to truly sing her role, avoiding cod-expressionist yowling while delivering superlative acting: Marie’s progress from boredom and wanton fecklessness to genuine contrition (too late) could not be more movingly conveyed. Two brilliant cameos come from Gerhard Siegel’s Captain and Jens Larsen’s Doctor – each despising the other, but not as much as both despise the bewildered Wozzeck, as the scene between these three makes pitilessly clear; and John Daszak’s randy Drum Major struts and preens as Marie’s nemesis. The Vienna Philharmonic plays for Vladimir Jurowski with a lustrous clarity that some might find too sumptuous for such a bleak work. A different viewpoint (shared by me) would be that Berg, a true son of Vienna, grew up with this kind of orchestral sound, to which his score was a ground-breaking modernist tribute.