Letter from Salzburg 3: Wozzeck

One the most eagerly awaited productions of the 2017 Salzburg Festival season was Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, staged by the South African artist and stage director William Kentridge.  Coincident with this new production was an exhibit of his work at the Museum der Moderne, Thick Time: Installations and Stagings, featuring eight large-scale multimedia installations, one of which was his first and his latest works.

The exhibit provided a useful insight into Kentridge’s unique vision, involving juxtaposed images, fragmentary objects, and interpolated videos.  His work is also often explicitly political.

Like almost all World War I combatants, Berg’s own artistic vision was informed by the horrific images of that conflict.  Kentridge’s staging takes Berg’s experience into account.  It is an unrelievedly dark vision, with fragmentary, blasted objects scattered over and throughout the stage, with simultaneous videos providing a sometimes obscure commentary on the action.

Matthias Goerne and Asmik Grigorian in Wozzek.

Wozzeck, brilliantly sung and acted by Matthias Goerne (better known by many as a superb recitalist), is a vulnerable soul lost in a savage world of which he can make no sense.  His lyric voice, at times strained with emotion, was perfect for this conception of the title character.

His lover Marie, sung with commendable precision by the young soprano Asmik Grigorian, is irresponsible, blithely heedless of the pain her ready sexual availability is causing Wozzeck.  Their young son is portrayed as a puppet in a gas mask, left alone in the end when both parents suffer violent deaths.

Once again, the virtuosity of the Vienna Philharmonic was simply astounding.  The orchestra’s spectacular playing could have overwhelmed the singers, had not it been restrained and focused by the conducting of Vladimir Jurowski.

As a theatrical experience, this production of Wozzeck was overwhelmingly powerful.  As a musical experience (especially for one who adores the music of Berg), it was unforgettable.  It has taken decades, but audiences are no longer intimidated by Berg’s atonal musical palette.  Wozzeck is his most successful work, and it was brilliantly served both musically and dramatically by this production.

Met audiences can look forward to the production’s appearance at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2019-20 season. It is becoming more common for financial and other reasons for even major companies, such as the Salzburg Festival and the Metropolitan Opera, to collaborate on new productions.

This season The Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès, which received its world premiere as last season’s Salzburg Festival, will be presented at the Metropolitan Opera.  It can be seen at the Paramount Theater as part of the Met in HD series on Saturday, November 18, 2017.

Tim Snider is one of the hosts for Sunday Opera Matinee, 2-6pm on WTJU 91.1fm, or wtju.net

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