Composer Alban Berg
in German with German and English Surtitles
Saturday, 31. January 2009
08:00 pm – 09:45 pm
Duration est. 1 hours 45 minutes
#BSOwozzeckDownload Cast List (PDF) To List of Performances
- Kent Nagano
- Andreas Kriegenburg
- Set Design
- Harald B. Thor
- Costume Design
- Andrea Schraad
- Stefan Bolliger
- Zenta Haerter
- Sören Eckhoff
- Miron Hakenbeck
- Michael Volle
- Jürgen Müller
- Kevin Conners
- Wolfgang Schmidt
- Clive Bayley
- 1. Handwerksbursche
- Christoph Stephinger
- 2. Handwerksbursche
- Francesco Petrozzi
- Der Narr
- Kenneth Roberson
- Michaela Schuster
- Heike Grötzinger
- Mariens Knabe
- Solist des Kinderchors
- Children‘s Chorus
- Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
- Bayerisches Staatsorchester
- Chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper
Wozzeck – a good man, who just wants to live his life. But the world around him strikes him down. It preys on his thoughts and triggers horrible anxieties in his soul. He struggles for words to explain himself, until his own utterance falls apart. Not even the woman he loves can understand him and becomes more and more alienated from him. Driven by the struggle to exist and unspeakable fear, pursued by the violence of his perverse fellow humans who feast on his terror, this Wozzeck hustles through life like a hunted animal until he can no longer endure the pressure and destroys his beloved and himself.
In the year of its creation, 1836, Georg Büchner’s drama, already pointed the way to the modern era with its terse, analytically sharp and ironic language. Some 80 years after it had come to be, on the eve of the First World War. Alban Berg discovered the fragment, which was all that remained of the play. Struck by the quintessential catastrophe of the “Wozzeck affair”, he created a score unique in the annals of 20th century music theatre to lament the loss of fallen mankind and a world on the brink of decay.
Stage director Andreas Kriegenburg tells of how life can turn into a horrifying nightmare from which there is no awakening, and in which the dreamer himself finally becomes a monster.
The Captain’s room. Early morning. Wozzeck is shaving the captain. The captain tells Wozzeck not to be in such a dreadful hurry and forces him to make conversation: he complains about the terrific pace of progress in the world, philosphizes about Eternity, chats about the weather. He teases Wozzeck without allowing him time to respond. Finally he touches a sore spot: he starts to talk about morals and Wozzeck’s illegitimate child. Wozzeck defends himself, pointing out his situation: only the rich can afford morality, he is hopelessly on the losing side.
An open field. Late Afternoon. Wozzeck and his friend Andres are working, cutting switches for the major outside of the town at sundown. Wozzeck finds it difficult to concentrate on what he is doing. He has visions and hears voices and cannot make out what is happening. Andres tries to rid Wozzeck of his fears by singing funny songs. Wozzeck is convinced the heavens and the earth are on fire.
Marie’s room. Evening. Soldiers are passing outside in the street. Marie, the mother of Wozzeck’s child, is excited by the military marching music and cannot take her eyes off the drum major. Margret, a neighbour, notices how much Marie admires the man. She shakes Marie out of her dream with malicious comments. Marie begins to sing a lullaby to her child and dreams of love. Wozzeck comes in, but has to leave again immediately. He tries to tell Marie about his visions, but she cannot understand him. Wozzeck rushes away, leaving Marie in the dark.
The doctor’s study. Sunny afternoon. The doctor is dissatisfied with Wozzeck because he has not been able to stop himself from urinating. The doctor needs Wozzeck’s urine for one of his many experiments, which he hopes will one day make him famous. He gives Wozzeck, his guinea-pig, some money. Wozzeck excuses himself, referring to the call of nature. The doctor declares the victory of reason and will power over nature. Wozzeck tells the doctor about his fears: all he can think about is Marie and how he might lose her and that everything seems to be coming to an end. The doctor does not understand him. He suggests that Wozzeck is displaying symptoms of lunacy.
The street outside Marie’s house. Dusk. Marie, who can no longer bear her loneliness and her longings, gets involved with the drum major. She flirts with him, repulses him, but in the end suppresses her misgivings and goes to bed with him.
Marie's room. Morning, sunshine. Standing in front of the mirror, Marie admires the earrings the drum major has given her. The glittering jewels makes her feel like a woman of the world. Her child watches her. Marie frightens the child because he does not want to go to sleep. Wozzeck arrives unexpectedly. He sees the new earrings, although Marie tries to hide them. He is suspicious and asks questions which Marie answers evasively. Wozzeck hands Marie his wages as usual, and the money he has earned from the doctor and the captain, and leaves her with a bad conscience about her infidelity.
A street in town. During the day. While out walking the captain meets the doctor, who is hurrying to visit one of his many dying patients. The captain stops the doctor and starts lecturing him and the doctor has his revenge by starting to talk about death. He tells the captain that he is in a dire state of health and warns him that he will probably fall victim to a dreadful illness. The captain begins to feel ill. When Wozzeck joins them, they both take a delight in tormenting him with innuendo about Marie’s infidelity. Wozzeck has no idea what they are talking about at first but it soon becomes clear to him what they are saying. The ground is swept away beneath his feet. He rushes off in despair.
The street in front of Marie’s house. Cloudy day. Wozzeck bombards Marie with questions. He wants to know the truth about her relationship with the drum major. Marie claims that her conscience is clear. When Wozzeck makes as if to strike her she defends herself: „Better a knife blade in my body than lay a hand on me.” She goes into the house, leaving Wozzeck in a daze.
The garden of an inn. Late evening. Marie meets the drum major. Everyone is drinking and dancing, only Wozzeck sits alone in the background, staring at Marie, who seems to have become a complete stranger. Two drunk men are philosophizing about life. Wozzeck wishes the world would come to an end. Andres tries to engage Wozzeck in conversation but cannot share his dark thoughts. When Wozzeck tries to rush on to the dance floor to go between Marie and the drum major, he is held back. A idiot approaches and prophesies a bloody end for Wozzeck.
The guard-room at the barracks. Night. After the last dances, Wozzeck is lying in the barracks and cannot sleep, the music still seems to be playing in his ears. He is obsessed with the picture of Marie in the arms of the drum major. Even saying a prayer does not help. The drum major appears in reality: he is drunk and boasts to Wozzeck of his manliness and Marie’s charms, which he has enjoyed. He then beats Wozzeck. The others look on.
Marie's room. It's night. Marie is plagued by feelings of guilt and seeks an answer in the Bible. Marie is afraid of the way her child is looking at her. She tells him a fairy-tale about the end of the world, but the child does not want to hear any more fairy-tales. Marie begs the Saviour for forgiveness and continues to wait for Wozzeck, who has not been home for several days.
A path by a pond in the woods. Dawn. A couple is out for a stroll at night. Wozzeck approaches the pond with Marie. It is cold and Marie wants to go home. Because he cannot stop her, Wozzeck stabs Marie with a knife.
An inn. Night. Wozzeck flees to an inn. He tries to warm himself with Margret, he wants to drink and sing and forget. Margret discovers blood on Wozzeck’s hands. Everyone sees the blood and now Wozzeck can no longer overlook it and flees.
A path by the pond in the woods. Moonlit night. Wozzeck, who cannot forget Marie, returns to the pond. The water does not cleanse him of his guilt; everything seems to be swimming in blood. Wozzeck looks for the knife and finds it. He throws it further out into the pond. Wozzeck goes down. The doctor and the captain, who are quite close, hear a shout and a groan. A cold shudder runs down the captain’s back. The doctor certifies a death. Both go on their way quickly.
In front of Marie’s house. Morning, sunshine. Children are playing. Among the children playing in the street is Wozzeck and Marie‘s son. A couple of children appear with the latest news. Marie’s body has been discovered. The curious children run to the pond to see the dead body. Wozzeck’s son is left alone.
"Wozzeck needs no defence" – A conversation with Andreas Kriegenburg
With Wozzeck, poverty with its mechanisms and deadly effects was explored on the operatic stage for the first time – above and beyond the depiction of a social milieu. In discussions of society over the past years in Germany and other industrialised nations, the term "Neue Unterschicht" ("New Proletariat") has emerged. Entirely new terms such as "Prekariat" ("Precariat") represent an attempt to define the conditions in which a social group live, and this has been treated by the theatre in many contemporary works. You have decided to leave the story of Wozzeck in its original literary context, the period of the 1820s and 1830s. Why?
There are two reasons for that. Firstly poverty – not only in Germany but in the history of humanity and industrial development as a whole – also has an emotional tradition which can be drawn from for the benefit of the audience. I don't believe it is difficult for the audience to shift poverty – with its violence, and its profoundly detrimental effect on the psychology of characters from another age – to our own age and our own understanding. It may even be almost easier to experience the cruelty and the potential for violence from a temporal distance than any attempt by me to adapt the work to the present day. Otherwise I would approach the work from a very rational, cerebral angle. Secondly I am convinced of the importance of telling the story of the character Wozzeck within the context of his age. He should be left within his entrapments. These very concrete limitations would be rendered harmless, even speculative, by any adaptation to the present day. Of course there are also people who have to sell their bodies and their health for medical experiments, it's just that such experiments are of course by no means as dangerous, they are less damaging to the individual than the experiment that the doctor carries out on Wozzeck – and ultimately because of an economic reason: namely to save money on feeding the soldiers. There is a violent edge to Wozzeck's life-situation that functions within the context of his time. This violence that influences him is something we can interpret through our sympathy, or through our urge to identify with someone weaker than ourselves. Shifting this character to the present day would trivialise him, rather than making him more profound and intensifying the sheer pain of what happens to him.
Elias Canetti writes that on first reading, Büchner's work came as a great shock to him. Berg was similarly shaken by Woyzeck when he saw it on stage in Vienna in 1914. It made him decide instantly to compose an opera based on Büchner's drama. And Berg's music had a very direct impact on people during the 1920s. You talk about participation in a pain that precedes understanding. How can this be triggered in the audience?
First one has to realise that we have no problems about understanding poverty or its causes. We can all summon up these reasons with astonishing virtuosity and, by apportioning blame, we can quite routinely distance ourselves from the problem of poverty. That's an essential part of the laziness of society. One can employ lengthy discussions to name the problem with precision while simultaneously dodging the issue. The hope is that via the more emotional perception of inevitable violence inflicted on a character, person or creature, one can feel pain and as a result can develop an anger that is more productive than rational understanding.
I'm not expecting the performance to change the way people treat poverty at all. But I hope that, together with the score, the music by Berg, it creates an experience that enables not only sympathy with the victim but also makes it possible, up to a certain point, to make the painfulness of poverty into an experience that can be shared.
Wozzeck, in our eyes, is not a person who is suffering from hunger or begging. He still functions as a member of society, and in his behaviour is far more like a person on the brink, or on a threshold. How is this poverty expressed as far as he is concerned?
The most important consequence for him is that he has no power over himself – he is remote-controlled. He has, for instance, no personal control of his own time, the time he has to live, the time he spends with his family. He is caught up in a network of so many duties that he no longer exists as an independent person in his own right. He only functions within the mechanism of his duties towards this society. The dilemma for him is that he does all of that to feed and preserve his family – yet simultaneously he destroys his family, because this family life no longer exists. There are two aspects of poverty in relation to time that are both equally violent: either one has too much time and also no experience of the ego – indeed, quite the opposite, the ego dissolves – or, just as inevitably, one has too little time or no time at all at one's free disposal. One literally loses oneself in social duties, and thereby loses the opportunity to develop an ability to experience the ego. What is fateful and painful about Wozzeck is that he regains his experience of the ego by murdering the person he loves the most, by killing what is dearest to him. This act is the only apparent or actually free decision by Wozzeck as an individual. Wozzeck is guided to it, however, by his numerous entrapments and limitations.
Why is Wozzeck unable to put up any resistance to this 'remote-controlling' of his existence?
The answer is as simple as it is tragic: because he is poor. Poor in the material sense. All the possibilities we have permanently available to us, or believe we have, are always bound up with our financial security. Our individualism has conditioned us to be unaware of this experience of poverty. Wozzeck's mindset, like his self image, the way he sees himself in relation to society, has been conditioned by this poverty for a long time. Long before the opera begins, he has accepted that he is of less value. There is no potential rebelliousness within him. All the accusations he makes are actually always levelled against himself. His conditioning renders him incapable of noticing the injustice being done him by society. Instead he experiences himself as unable to function adequately. That is the perfect conditioning of a being without a will of its own.
Does poverty have a similar effect on Marie?
We find out very little about Marie and can only speculate. It's the other side of the coin – she doesn't go to work and has a surfeit of spare time, but because of poverty she has largely been sidelined from social life. There is only the conversation with the neighbour. Moreover we discover that she spends her time at home, and that the child ties her to the household. Because of this, however, her relationship with the child turns out to be increasingly fraught. We infer this merely from the various hints we are given. However one can see the attempt to break out of this prison of surplus time and lost life, and to love the drum major or at least surrender to him, as an attempt at self-destruction. This could be dismissed simply as a basic desire to live and to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Yet since her self-reproach is so extreme, one can go as far as to say that she extinguishes this system in which she cannot live, or experience anything – and does so by extinguishing herself.
Marie and Wozzeck have a shared experience of life and of suffering. Is their relationship one of necessity?
We find out relatively little about that too. They are two people who do not express their feelings for one another in words. With Wozzeck, we have to assume that he loves Marie very much. He devotes the life he leads to her, and to the child. She, on the other hand, shows pained reactions when he comes just to hand over money and then leaves again right away. She watches him with great attentiveness and notices that he has not looked at his son – from this we have to assume that she loves him too. I believe the two of them are very close. That is the most painful and thus the most important statement one can make about this relationship. Any claim that the relationship is growing cooler and more distant would actually diminish the violence of Wozzeck as a person and his transformation into Wozzeck the monster. The greater the love, the more incomprehensible, painful and terrifying Wozzeck's deed becomes.
Do Büchner's play, and Berg's opera, exonerate the crime at all?
The crime requires no exoneration – because we witness the transformation that Wozzeck undergoes as a person. Wozzeck can scarcely control his perception of reality any longer. Poverty, malnutrition and stress have already made him highly unstable. He has visions, develops symptoms of paranoia and, at the point the work begins, his transformation from human being into monster is already far advanced. In that respect one cannot accuse Wozzeck as a human being, because the society surrounding him has already changed him so much that he is on the verge of disintegration. Of course the work is biased, because it describes poverty. Publicising poverty always means taking a stand. The process is always inherently accusatory, otherwise it would be obscene. But the character, Wozzeck the person, needs no defence. The work documents the last small piece of life he possesses, and reflects the distortion of a society that changes and shapes Wozzeck himself. It moulds him into something to suit itself.
Büchner's interest was sparked by the legal and medical files from the historical murder case of Johann Christian Woyzeck, from the 1820s. After several expert opinions, that Woyzeck was judged compos mentis by the doctors, sentenced and executed. Even in Büchner we are given no clue as to what happens to Woyzeck after his deed, and to how the play will end. Did Büchner no longer need to apportion blame, or did he consciously avoid doing so?
What probably brought the Woyzeck case to Büchner's attention was the fact that it was one of the first trials where expert opinions from psychologists were used at all, and where the very question of a psychological reason for the crime was explored. At that time even the judges found the defendant's mental state so puzzling that they wanted to be certain. The fact that they were not yet capable of drawing different conclusions from the expert opinions can be put down to the time in which they lived. I think Büchner was interested in this case because it was the first time he saw tangible reasons appearing for criminal actions. Here, murder was making society insecure, and for the first time there were requests for extenuating circumstances because of psychological instability; people also began to wonder where that instability came from.
Büchner bridges the gap between this psychological instability and the social conditions of that time – and this connection was something that the doctors and judges were either unwilling or unable to make. Büchner tells the story in very brief scenes, and uses them to create a prison for Woyzeck – a prison from which he has no hope of escaping. The path leading to the crime has a great inevitability about it, and the play offers Woyzeck no options at all. So in this respect, Büchner can be seen as biased. He describes how this character's life has been astonishingly pre-determined, as we read and watch, deprives us of the chance to level any blame at Woyzeck. The issue of guilt is removed at the very start by the motif of imprisonment, confinement, and the incredible concision of the storyline. In the opera Wozzeck returns to the scene of the crime, and his intention on the surface is to look for the murder weapon and dispose of it, but in fact he is returning to Marie, and he then disappears himself. There is speculation as to whether he commits suicide or simply drowns. Is this extinction and disappearance – described musically as a process, a disappearance within nature that has been hostile up to this point – the ultimate and logical fate of this character? It could be that Büchner – either to protect us or himself – is submitting to a romantic urge here by parting a loving couple and then reuniting them. Instead of exposing Woyzeck to the subsequent machinery of attempts to solve the crime and to permanent humiliation, Büchner places the blame on himself and on us. He thus redeems Woyzeck from a further encounter with the social machinery and allows him to rejoin the woman he loves in death.
The musical references and thematic links that define Wozzeck constantly threaten to dissolve, lose their tonality and drift apart, just as Wozzeck's relationships collapse and fall apart. After Wozzeck's disappearance Berg gives us an instrumental interlude which for the first time in the opera is tonally based in its entirety. A kind of obituary…
... which, regarding the psychology of the character Wozzeck, is really fantastic, because Berg is accompanying him back to rest and repose. The fireworks inside his head, the thoughts constantly struggling with each other the worries, doubts and visions all disappear. Regardless of whether Wozzeck wanders into the water, floats on the water, lies anywhere or stands in the water with his head thrown back – Berg accompanies Wozzeck back to his first and only moment of true repose.
In 1991 you produced Büchner's Woyzeck at the Berlin Volksbühne. What is it like now to encounter the music of Alban Berg? Does the music alter one's attitude to Wozzeck's psychology, the visibility of his problems and of his conditions of existence?
The Woyzeck that I produced back then with the actors in Berlin did not even make an attempt to enlist sympathy. Indeed, that version tried to categorically deny it to the audience. In his prostration and obsequiousness, and his desire to function at all costs, Woyzeck was so wretched that he tended to infuriate people. If a character is humiliated by everyone and never makes any attempt to resist, that makes it impossible for me to have any sympathy with him. In that performance, the thought of Woyzeck being ultimately responsible for his own situation made people really angry. Many members of the audience were incredibly annoyed about not being allowed to have any sympathy with this character. I think this is impossible in the Berg version. Extended passages in the composition are full of bitter accusation and also convey Wozzeck's pain.
In the opera, within 90 or 100 minutes of performance time, an audience is united in its empathy for this character. At the same time we feel powerless, confronted by having to merely watch this character and the path he takes. The inevitability of a wasted life. Does the music offer any consolation? Any hope that the injustice and the tragedy can be made good in any way? When the evening is over, what feeling is one left with?
I think there are two consecutive motifs in the Berg. The first is that major interlude before the final scene. It conveys the motif of consolation through a very simple harmony, at a moment when nothing is happening on stage: the music emancipates itself briefly from the characters and, for a while, becomes a value in its own right. A value which is also a harmonious one. We notice it as a moment of consolation, and also as a possibility for the audience to calm down. But then Berg follows it with the scene with the children. Primarily it contains the troubling motif where Wozzeck's son fails to respond to the situation. He remains out of touch emotionally with what has happened. A troubling and terrifying motif is introduced here: the fact that a character like Wozzeck is part of a tradition, and his fate is continued inevitably in the generation that follows him. So the motif of consolation and the destruction of that consolation come hard on each other's heels. I find it incredibly exciting that this last scene, rather than upstaging the previous one musically, uses very tender means to destroy the yearning for consolation, and for the consolation provided by the harmony of the interlude. This is a cruel intensification of the certainty that such consolation cannot exist.
Conveying Wozzeck's view of the world and making it intelligible are part of the aesthetics of this production. Wozzeck's fears are fed by reasons rooted in reality. They are not only the paranoia of someone totally insane, they also assume visibly monstrous forms on stage.
When does madness begin, and what causes it? It's difficult to give a diagnosis here. What is it that changes a person's perception? On the one hand, we take sides. We put ourselves in Wozzeck's shoes and see the world the way he sees it. This subjective world of his is strange to us, however. On the other hand we can sense how strange Wozzeck is to us. Wozzeck himself can only experience his environment in this distorted way, it is his reality. We can perhaps assume that he has a distorted perception of things, and that the society surrounding him is perceived by him as monstrous. We see this inner reality as monstrous, but for him it is quite normal.
Is he closer to us, however, than people we can communicate with in everyday life on a very practical level, more simply than with a doctor or a colonel?
The first question we have to ask ourselves is: how does Wozzeck perceive us? And the answer is, in just as distorted a way as all those who surround him on the stage as monsters. On the other hand we have to deduce from this that we ourselves would have no chance of breaking through the incredibly violent solitude in which this character is imprisoned – because, through Wozzeck's eyes, we are a part of the monstrosity of society. The only people who have remained normal for him are Marie and his son. Our desire to help a person like him is actually rendered impossible by Wozzeck himself – by his distorted perception. This insane view of reality is, however, the result of clear manipulation of Wozzeck as a human being. We actually have no opportunity of hoping that we can help him. We actually belong to what he sees surrounding him – the hostile side of society.
Andreas Kriegenburg was interviewed by Miron Hakenbeck
Kent Nagano, geboren in Kalifornien, war Musikdirektor des Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, der Opéra National de Lyon, des Hallé Orchestra und der Los Angeles Opera sowie künstlerischer Leiter und Chefdirigent des Deutschen Symphonieorchesters Berlin. Von 2006 bis 2013 war er Generalmusikdirektor der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Seit der Spielzeit 2015/16 ist er Generalmusikdirektor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper sowie Chefdirigent des Philharmonischen Staatsorchesters Hamburg. In seiner Zeit an der Bayerischen Staatsoper leitete er zahlreiche Neuproduktionen, darunter Billy Budd, Chowanschtschina, Eugen Onegin, Idomeneo, Ariadne auf Naxos, Wozzeck, Lohengrin, Die schweigsame Frau, Saint François d’Assise sowie die Uraufführungen von Wolfgang Rihms Das Gehege, Unsuk Chins Alice in Wonderland, Minas Borboudakis’ liebe.nur liebe und Jörg Widmanns Babylon. (Stand: 2020)