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Wozzeck at Salzburg Festival — a breathtaking reassessment

Wozzeck at Salzburg Festival — a breathtaking reassessment

August 10
03:51 2017

A world that is burning, a hollow ground, a severed head — Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, written in 1836, already seemed to be dreaming of the Great War. Composer Alban Berg was gripped by the play when he saw it in 1914, but it was his own experiences serving in the war that really drove him to turn Büchner’s prescient protagonist into an operatic anti-hero.

A century after Berg began work on his opera, William Kentridge has brought the first world war back into Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival. His grim sketches and animations, a return to his earlier medium of charcoal drawings, provide layer upon layer of haunting images to accompany Wozzeck’s visions and torments. Bombed Belgian villages, maps, muddy fields, burnt forests, mangled bodies, Zeppelins, crutches, gas masks: Kentridge finds a wealth of pictures for a world consumed by violence and destruction.

As an artist, Kentridge grew up with Büchner’s play, unforgettably transporting the action to 1990s Johannesburg for Handspring Puppet Company with his Woyzeck on the Highveld. And yet, untypically, there are few quotations of past work in this new production. In a breathtaking reassessment of Berg’s masterpiece, Kentridge has constructed a new world: dark, heavy, hypnotic.

Wozzeck at Salzburg Festival. Photo: Ruth Walz

As always when Kentridge makes opera, this is more installation art than it is conventional staging. Inevitably, the images dominate, and the humanity of the characters takes second place. We are witnessing not Berg’s experiences of war, but Büchner’s premonitions; the weight of the tragedy we feel is less that of Wozzeck’s individual suffering, more grief at the human capacity for devastation.

In this depersonalised version, Wozzeck himself is almost a blank canvas, the void upon which the cruelty of others is perpetrated; Marie is a neutral figure, a woman-child to whom things are done; the child itself is a wooden puppet with a gas mask as a face, more symbol than creature.

Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck, left, and Jens Larsen as Doctor. Photo: Ruth Walz

Together with co-director Luc De Wit, Kentridge provides more physical action in this production than he has in past operas; Sabine Theunissen’s precarious steampunk set gives much occasion for athletic clambering. Even so, the figures follow the narrative without digression or translation. John Daszak’s cartoonish Tambourmajor, Gerhard Siegel’s goose-stepping Hauptmann, and Jens Larsen’s stiffly creepy Doktor all leave a formidable impression. In the title role, Matthias Goerne remains blandly underpowered, although meticulously accurate; Asmik Grigorian’s Marie is purged of the eros that usually infuses interpretations of the role, more pure-toned victim than world-weary whore.

The Vienna Philharmonic, palpably at home in this repertoire, follows Vladimir Jurowski’s lead to deliver a Wozzeck that has all the violence, oppressive weight and terrible grief of Kentridge’s imagery. Jurowski adds both a raw edge and a glassy clarity to his approach, keeping textures open and transparent, drawing out fine detail.

Although — or perhaps because — it is only 90 minutes long, this is an evening of epic proportions, a work of art across many genres, and a feather in the cap of the Salzburg Festival.


To August 27,

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