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Simon McBurny directs Wozzeck in Aix-en-Provence (****) [stream]
Author: Jos Hermans
Thousands of people crowded the marketplace in Leipzig on Aug. 27, 1824. Among them may have been 11-year-old Richard Wagner because children were not required to attend school that day. What brought so many people to their feet was the public execution of Johann Christian Woyzeck, the barber and wigmaker who had killed his mistress with a broken sword blade, driven by a combination of unemployment, hunger, humiliation, hatred and jealousy. Georg Büchner would devote a play to it 12 years later. Whether Wagner knew it is not known. One hundred years later, his admirer Alban Berg will transform the subject into the most influential opera of the 20th century. After its Berlin premiere in 1925, Kurt Weill called Wozzeck the "grandiose conclusion to the traditional Wagnerian drama."
Wozzeck brought Berg worldwide recognition and, through royalties, a decent income as well. He could now afford an English Ford, a summer cottage in California and the Waldhaus on the Wörthersee. Not so much later, things went completely wrong. While the National Socialists denounced the work as an example of cultural Bolshevism, the Soviet authorities removed it from the posters as an expression of decadent bourgeois art ! Berg's exile from the theater left him financially and artistically ruined.
It is a strange kind of groupthink that seems to drive the professional press's opinion of director Simon McBurney. McBurney doesn't seem to be able to do anything wrong. His heavily over-the-top Zauberflöte he stripped from its spiritual core so that little more than a fairy tale for children remained. There was the hyped performance of "The Encounter" with which he made us listen to the rainforest through headphones. Of the half-baked ecological philosophy behind it, I remember nothing. Here again in Aix, the superlatives are all over the place even though the production is in fact rather conventional. There is nothing wrong with this production but, on the other hand, it is not going to make us forget the best productions of the last decade. It doesn't teach us anything new about the characters and it never surprises us with images that can claim any visual originality. McBurney also lacks the courage to make connections to the ills of our time when they are so obvious. As a result, everything is rather predictable.
The dramatic power of Wozzeck comes from the fact that we are forced to see everything that happens through the eyes of the title hero. Wozzeck's world is a projection of his own mind, and since it is the only world we get to see, we are forced to share his experiences and identify ourselves with him. McBurney has understood this well and recreates the sparsely dressed stage into a kind of mental space for the title hero. The quasi-essential revolving stage is divided up into concentric circles that can rotate independently of one another, adding movement to the scene but sometimes threatening to bog down in a carnival-like effect. A naked door frame simulates entering other spaces. Will Duke's video images rarely become concrete. They are only vague indications of what is going on in Wozzeck's mind. With their sfumato effect, they stick to the walls like video wallpaper. In the audience, they will undoubtedly have been observed with more interest. Occasionally a snippet of text also appears on the video wall, a pedantic reflex that rarely leads to anything. Scene changes usually happen quickly and efficiently out of the darkness with Paul Anderson's light as a guide. Sometimes McBurney takes a highly illustrative approach as in" Oh! Meine Theorie" when he overwhelmes the doctor with a flock of admirers. At other times, he avoids the illustrative. For example, he will not show the blood-red moon during Marie's murder.
It is the captain and the doctor who keep Wozzeck trapped in his crippling anxiety psychosis. Both are powerful symbols of the rampant terror and war mongering with which globalist power elites have been taunting us for the past three years. Aren't we all Wozzeck today? In the UK 1000 extra-people die every week (ONS figures) and no one seems to care. Isn't our daily reality more hallucinatory than the dystopian world in which Büchner lets his poor soldier go down?
Peter Hoare is very good as the captain: a nervous fuss-maker with a very slight English operatic accent. The switching to head voice, the rhythmic coughs and the bursts of laughter work wonderfully well for him. Inevitably one is reminded of the NATO armchair generals who show off their parallel realities on CNN.
Brindley Sherratt does not disappoint either. His resonating bass has a pleasing timbre. The doctor is one of those self-righteous white-coated experts we have come to know well in recent years who, juggling urine samples, gloats in his experimentation frenzy. He tries to instill fear in the captain and sells him a syringe in the butt. Does it all sound familiar to you?
Christian Gerhaher sings the part exactly the same as in Zurich and Vienna. However, he cannot match his great role model Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in terms of clarity of articulation. Frankly, I look forward to another baritone who can illuminate the role in a more personal way from within. Johannes Martin Kränzle was the last one I saw doing that.
With her slim lined soprano, Malin Byström is a size too small for a role that in fact requires the resources of a truly dramatic soprano for maximum effect. Her acting is unnatural across the board. In everything she does, she appears to be forced. When her throat is slit like a rabbit by Wozzeck, it no longer matters that she lies floundering. It is a terrifying scene.
Thomas Blondelle as the drum major is the Don Juan of the street with an Elvis look in his fine leather jacket. He matches the brutal violence with which he beats up Wozzeck at the inn with the power of his macho tenor.
The scenic highlights are to be experienced at the inn. Here McBurney shows he can direct a crowd, lively and differentiated, albeit with the support of choreographer Leah Hausman. Sometimes this results in a tableau vivant that recalls cabaret scenes by George Grosz.
In the end, everything leads to the overwhelming orchestral epilogue "Invention über eine Tonart," the requiem for his anti-hero which the composer lets echo through the auditorium as a personal commentary. Most directors do nothing with this. McBurney lets the boy (a boyish girl actually) walk past his father as he sinks for minutes on end into the quicksand of the stage floor. Wozzeck Junior has already grown an elephant skin. It will serve him well. "Hopp, hopp" sings the captain's little doppelganger as he taunts the boy after his father's example. His gaze overflows with the awareness that he, too, will eat the beans.
The main asset of any production of Wozzeck is the orchestra. With Simon Rattle, an experienced guide stands before the London Symphony Orchestra. Together they manage to give the adventurous ride through the hallmark pages of Expressionism, oscillating between the purest chamber music and the violence of High Romanticism, all the detail required. The interludes, pimped with excellent solo moments, manifest themselves as the musical backbone of the piece.
Wozzeck is a play that will soon celebrate its centennial but will not age quickly. The writing is as modern as ever, the subject matter will not rust easily.
Watch the show on Arte Concert untill august 12.