In 2010 Berg’s Wozzeck was produced in Russia for the first time since 1927. The production, at the Bolshoi, was directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Few people familiar with his work will be surprised to learn that Tcherniakov does not see Wozzeck as a down trodden and impoverished soldier. In fact he doesn’t see him as downtrodden and impoverished at all (unlike, say Calixto Bieito who transplants the action to a chemical plant but leaves the power relationships pretty much intact). Rather, Wozzeck is a sort of 21st century salaryman leading a life of modest prosperity but crushing boredom with Marie and their son in a city inhabited entirely by other such families. What’s missing is anything that resembles sensation or “life”.
Tcherniakov conveys this concept long before the music starts with an “advent calendar” style tableau of 12 rooms (4×3) filling the stage space, each inhabited by a couple and a child going about their routine business. Marie and Wozzeck occupy one of these rooms. Everything takes place either in one of these rooms or in a sports bar created by configuring the lower third of the set. The scene with the “captain” sets the tone. It’s a role play, set in the “captain’s room. They change into military uniform for it (Wozzeck even has a ball and chain) but it’s clearly an act. They are seeking some sensation to liven things up. The scene with the “doctor” is rather similar.
The bar scenes; Wozzeck and Andres, Marie and the Drum Major, the manic dancing after Marie’s death, take place in a really dull, characterless sports bar. There’s a big screen TV that shows, by turns, golf, darts, soccer and, weirdly, England’s Rugby World Cup win over Australia in 2003. Surely the only time Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnston have featured in an opera production. Everybody is bored all the time. Marie is tarted up to score but she still can’t generate any real enthusiasm for the Drum Major.
The concept comes to a head in the scene where Wozzeck kills Marie. It seems to be a BDSM role play gone wrong. She is blindfolded and in her underwear. He has a riding crop. Then, inexplicably, he stabs her. There’s no mad scene disposing of the murder weapon. Wozzeck stays in the room talking to the dead Marie. One senses this is the first time he’s really talked to her in ages. In the other “rooms” life goes on as normal. In the final scene the child comes into the room and starts playing video games oblivious to his mother lying dead in a chair. Taken as a whole it’s surprisingly coherent and quite powerful though not, I think, as incisive as Bieito. I struggles with the first few scenes but gradually found myself being pulled in by the concept. That’s on DVD of course. I expect the experience in the theatre was more immersive.
Musically it’s right up there. Both Georg Nigl as Wozzeck and Mardi Byers as Marie are really into it and both are completely capable of coping with the very varied demands of the music. The mainly Russian supporting cast are also well up to the job. Teodor Currentzis conducts with considerable insight. He treats the musicc in the grand romantic manner which is, I think, the right approach to Berg. It needs to be detailed but not academic. The Bolshoi orchestra sounds very good in a kind of music that can hardly be familiar to them.
Andy Sommer had the unenviable task of directing the film. He strikes a good balance between showing us how each scene,; most of which occupy a tiny part of the stage, fit into an overall picture while, inevitably, choosing mostly to show us the bit where the action is. Good choices and no gimmicks make this a pretty good effort. It was filmed in HD and the picture on DVD is very good as is the Dolby surround sound. It’s also available on Blu-ray. Subtitles are English, French, German and Spanish and much of the time one can see the in theatre Russian surtitles too. There’s a handy bonus “Making of” video with interviews with Tcherniakov, Currentzis, Nigl and Byers. The booklet has a track listing with synopsis and an explanatory essay.
I don’t think this is the definitive Wozzeck but it’s definitely worth a look. My preference remains the Bieito production which I think is psychologically truer to the original and also brilliantly captured on disk. For those wanting a traditional version I suspect the 1970 Rolf Liebermann film may still be the best bet.