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David Shengold
Opera News, July 2007

Available for the first time in three decades, this visually superb, musically impressive 1970 film of Alban Berg’s masterpiece documents a peak in the Rolf Liebermann era of the Hamburg State Opera. Arthaus Musik’s transfer to DVD finds both sound and picture remarkably well preserved and restored. What makes director Joachim Hess’s work unique is its having been filmed largely in the exteriors around Hamburg that were the setting for the real-life story on which Büchner’s underlying play was based. The still waters, wood and stone buildings, with an earth-tone palette often viewed on gray backgrounds (clearly, from the singers’ visible breath, much filming took place in the early morning), make four unforgettable images. Only in the two drunken inn scenes, partly due to the difficulties of post-dubbing singing crowds, does a touch of artifice intercede; overall this Wozzeck boasts camera work (W. P. Hassenstein) and editing (Karin Baumhöfner) that far exceed most opera films in subtlety and psychological point.

Witness the visual presentation of Gerhard Unger’s monumentally self-satisfied Captain – a wonderful performance, rich in verbal detail and beautifully sung. Unger makes an amusing, pointed contrast with the lowering, unhinged Doctor of Hans Sotin, also providing uncommon vocal beauty in a part that is often guyed.

Bruno Maderna’s musical direction is excellent, and Berg’s all-important interludes are given suitable visual complements. Any additional visual documentation of the great haunting-eyed Marie, temperamentally and visually a good match for her child (Martina Schumacher), displays deep humanity, surprisingly lush vocalism and a thrilling high register. Richard Cassilly, a pillar of the Hamburg ensemble, makes a formidable Drum Major, a role he still commanded at the Met nearly twenty years later.

Toni Blankenheim’s character baritone may not offer equivalent tonal allure, but – with a hangdog, devastated look, like something out of a George Grosz drawing – this expert singing actor doesn’t set a foot wrong; unlike some, Blankenheim plays Wozzeck not as an automaton but as a tormented soul grasping to believe, against all evidence, that his world is not collapsing. Elisabeth Steiner proves ideally cast as a luscious-looking and –sounding Margret. The two workmen are a fine future Met Rigoletto (Franz Grundheber) and the only German bass in 1970 who was greater than Sotin – the phenomenal young Kurt Moll. This is a very welcome release.

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