Calixto Bieito’s 2006 staging of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” has reaped equal parts praise and damnation from critics and audiences. It is a powerfully reprehensible staging of a powerfully reprehensible opera.
Wozzeck is a common solider, shaving his Captain. The Captain chastises him for having fathered an illegitimate child with one Marie. Wozzeck defends his lack of virtue, explaining that he is too destitute to have the blessings of the Church, but Wozzeck reminds his superior of Christ’s words “suffer not the little children.” The Captain heaps even more abuse and scorn on Wozzeck, and the soldier becomes indignant.
Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting sticks in a field as the sun sets. Wozzeck tells Andres of horrifying visions and Andres unsuccessfully tries to offer Wozzeck reassurance. Wozzeck visits The Doctor. The Doctor scolds him for abandoning his diet. The Doctor, who is obviously insane, is delighted, however, when Wozzeck tells him of the violent visions he has been having. Meanwhile, Marie notices the regiment’s Drum Major, and the two begin an affair. The Drum Major gives Marie earrings as he parts. Feeling remorse for her infidelity, Marie sings her child a lullaby.
Wozzeck returns him and tells Marie of his hallucinations. Marie is disturbed and the tension between the two of them escalates when Wozzeck notices Marie’s new earrings and begins to question her about them. Wozzeck’s jealousy engulfs him, and he becomes wild with visions of blood.
The Captain and the Doctor are are engaged in conversation on the street. The Doctor is giving the Captain a terminal diagnosis when they encounter Wozzeck. The Doctor and the Captain mock Wozzeck, telling him of the affair between Marie and the Drum Major. Wozzeck flees to a tavern where he discovers Marie and the Drum Major dancing. The tavern idiot confronts Wozzeck, telling him ‘I smell blood,” which, naturally, sends Wozzeck into a frenzy. In the barracks, Wozzeck gets into a fight with the Drum Major, who knocks Wozzeck down.
Later, Marie reads of the gospel account of the woman taken in adultery. Overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, Marie joins Wozzeck for a walk in the forest. A blood red moon rises as they are walking, and Wozzeck slashes Marie’s throat. Wozzeck throws the knife away, and heads
back to the tavern to escape his blood dreams. In the tavern, patrons notice Wozzeck’s bloodied hands and question him. In a panic, Wozzeck returns to the forest to search for the knife. When he finds it he throws it into a pond, then discovers Marie’s body. Wozzeck’s mental state deteriorates. He becomes convinced that he did not throw the knife far enough, and fears that it will turn up on the shore. Desperate to retrieve the waspon and wash off the incriminating blood, Wozzeck runs towards the pond. The Captain and the Doctor pass by and hear Wozzeck’s anguished cries, but they are unconcerned. Wozzeck jumps into the pond, but unable to swim, he drowns.
The next morning Wozzeck and Marie’s child plays on a hobby horse. The neighborhood children mock him for his parentage when news arrives that Marie’s body has been found. The children rush off to see the dead body, and Marie’s child eventually joins them.
“La Boheme” this isn’t.
Purists, who really should stay the hell away from anything written by the Second Viennese School, saw Bieito’s staging and immediately put the production’s necrophilia, Elton John impersonator, and excessive nudity on their epic lists of complaints. Bieito was characterized as the quintessential Regie nightmare. The purist hacks looked at their libretto/bible from a two inch distance and cried foul, failing to see past their paint-by-numbers preferences. Bieito was predictably (and oh so boringly) accused of pulling juvenile antics. To approach Berg’s nihilistic work as if it were a holy, chiseled museum piece is nothing short of hypocrisy.
Bieito gets to the visceral spirit of Berg’s “Wozzeck” more than anyone before him and, I suspect, this production will be the reference version for many years to come. Bieito sets his Wozzeck in a chemical plant, a post-industrial, apocalyptic wasteland. Marie and Wozzeck abide in the plant’s lower level, wear tattered overalls, and are stained with grime. Pipes exude deadening pollution, and Marie’s home is an industrial container. Her child frequently resorts to the fetal position to shield himself from his dreary existence. He is covered in sores, wears a death-red jumpsuit and breathes through an oxygen mask. Marie cleans herself off and slinks into a evening dress, ascending to the upper level for her affair with the upper class, the superficially exotic Drum Major (the Elton impersonator). Marie, Wozzeck, and their child are anonymous to an apathetic world. The Jeffrey Dahmer-like Doctor finds an appealing cadaver among the pile and simulates sexual push-ups with the corpse. The sight sends the already fragile Wozzeck over the edge. The harrowing finale has Wozzeck climbing into a drainage pipe as the nude, zombie-like chorus encircles Marie’s corpse. The children throw industrial waste at Marie’s orphan.
Bavarian Franz Hawlata may possibly be the best Wozzeck on record. Vocally, and in performance, his is a corpulent, rabid antihero. Likewise, Angela Denoke’s Marie convincingly projects desperation and pathos. Johann Tilli and Hubert Delamboye capture the banality of evil all too convincingly. Amazingly, conductor Sebastian Weigle cuts through the staged refuse and delivers music of power and, yes, beauty.
The anticipated backlash spewed by hopelessly dull, bourgeoisie critics came fast and furious. Would I want to watch this again anytime soon? It nearly took me a year to revisit this film, and it will probably be another year before I brave it a third time. Like all great art, this was not easy. And this is great art which I recommend unreservedly to everyone but the operatic televangelists.