Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Stephen Eddins, April 2009

In the program notes for this production of Wozzeck at Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona, director Calixto Bieito wrote that his aim was to “recreate the original’s capacity to shock.” He certainly pulls out all the stops to create shock, and he fully succeeds, but being shocking shouldn’t necessitate garbling the narrative to the point of incomprehensibility. Anyone without a fairly thorough understanding of the opera would be mystified as to what exactly is going on, and why. Part of the difficulty is the fact that there is a unit set by Alfons Flores. It’s visually spectacular, a labyrinth of massive industrial pipes and ducts in what appears to be a dank subterranean chamber, and it aptly places the action in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. (The costumes by Mercè Paloma reinforce that imagery, with all the characters except for the Captain, the Doctor, and the Drum Major cast as worker-drones in industrial jumpsuits and tool belts.) Although there are a few scenic adjustments (Marie’s room is a luridly lit boxcar that descends from the ceiling, and a catwalk appears on which she and the Drum Major make love), the set gives few clues that meaningfully delineate the physical settings that play an important role in the drama. There’s no indication of whether the characters are in a field, or a barracks, or a street, or by a pond. Without having some idea of where the characters are or what they’re supposed to be doing, there’s little to establish a narrative flow, and consequently (and most disastrously), it’s difficult to develop empathy with them. That’s unfortunate, because otherwise, Bieito makes some brilliant, provocative choices that add new textures of despair to the story. (For instance, the child, rather than being a toddler, is a gawky pre-adolescent nearly as tall as Marie, who’s clearly developmentally challenged and who requires a respirator to breathe. At the end of the Bible reading scene, Marie veers from repentance into rage and furiously tears the Bible to pieces. After her murder, Wozzeck stuffs her body into a sewage pipe.)

In terms of shock value, the viewer should be aware that there’s lots nudity, most of it without a clear purpose, and the gore quotient is exceptionally high. (The Doctor is apparently a coroner, and Wozzeck’s job for him is collecting corpses, one of which the Doctor eviscerates and then waves the guts in Wozzeck’s face.) Viewer advisory: do not watch this performance while eating dinner, or eating anything, for that matter. And then there’s the gratuitous necrophilia…In any case, there is so much going on to distract that it’s easy to lose track not only of the characters and plot, but the music, which remarkably seems to fade into the background. There are so many perplexing and/or disturbing attention-grabbing visual elements (i.e., the genuinely creepy giant dragon or serpent that slithers through the third act tavern scene) that the performance pales as an aural experience. That’s a real shame, because the vocal performances are first-rate. In particular, Angela Denoke and Franz Hawlata as Marie and Wozzeck sing powerfully and beautifully. Sebastian Weigle, leads the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Theatre del Liceu in a brutal, brittle reading of the score that’s perfectly in sync with the grim tone of the production. Even the usually cathartic Adagio that follows Wozzeck’s death scene feels tight and constricted. That might be a reasonable aesthetic choice, except that it diminishes the stark impact of the contrast with what has come before, and with the opening of the final scene.

For the viewer intrigued by the audacity of the production and the quality of the singing, the best advice would be to watch the DVD multiple times. After having seen it once to adjust to its aggressive visual assault, repeated viewings allow focus on the totality of the production, and on the musical performances in particular.

Robert Levine, November 2007

Many operas, tragic in nature, leave an audience deeply affected. But Wozzeck holds a special place: its “man’s inhumanity to man” and “society and the system will destroy you” messages go straight to the heart and leave us feeling dejected. The recently-released 1970 film of the opera from Hamburg by Rolf Liebermann perfectly captured the work’s bleakness and nihilism, and I suspect that for sheer atmosphere and honesty to the text it never will be bettered. But for an almost unbearable, ghastly view of life, madness, and uncaring, this present production, from the stage of Barcelona’s Teatre del Liceu—directed by bad-boy Calixto Bieito—will hereafter be the one to beat.

This isn’t one of Bieito’s juvenile-delinquent ravings like his Ballo with the conspirators on toilets; rather, he just takes a life-deadening score and plot and degrades the characters even further by placing them in a sunless underground world of the future. The life-is-pointless theme remains, but now life is made up not only of heartlessness, but filth and human innards, no natural light, and necrophilia. It’s amazing that the audience doesn’t go crazy the way Wozzeck does; indeed, near the opera’s close, naked cast members, covered in God-knows-what sort of excremental grime, walk into the audience, zombie-like.

We are, I believe, in an oil refinery or petro-chemical plant (Wozzeck is no longer a soldier, just a lowly employee with the captain as Foreman), with acres of twisting pipes looking for all the world like the intestines the doctor rips out of the dead bodies he then cuddles up to. Wozzeck and Marie live in a fluorescently illuminated box with a patch of green shrubbery that Wozzeck tends until it, too, gets destroyed and leaves the scene lifeless. The Drum Major is a local entertainer dressed as either an Elvis- or Elton John-impersonator that Marie sees as an alternative to the dreary slime around her; her child, invariably in a fetal position (though he’s big enough to be 10 years old) or on his omnipresent hobby horse, has open sores, is bald, and must breathe through an oxygen mask. (Others in the cast are similarly afflicted.)

Pianos, Marie and Wozzeck’s living quarters, other spaces, descend into the playing area in front of the piping; an area of the stage will be illuminated to represent, say, the tavern, while the remainder goes dark. The scenes in the tavern are wild, the Idiot deformed and screaming, with television director Pietro D’Agostino’s close-ups horrendous. The turning point comes in the third scene of the second act (although the opera is performed uninterrupted, in one act) when the Doctor, Captain, and Wozzeck meet on the street. The Captain dances insanely as the Doctor does sexual push-ups on the dead body of a woman he has carried onto the scene. Wozzeck, thoroughly confused and trying to get away from them, goes mad. He seems suddenly to realize that the only way to conform is to be as lunatic as they are; his murder of Marie, as they sit on a pipe in a world without a moon, is a thing to do and seems undriven by passion. He shoves her into a pipe drain from which dirty water has been spewing and climbs in there himself in the opera’s penultimate scene.

We must be grateful that Sebastian Weigle, the Liceu’s music director, leads a reading of the score that is an antidote to the filth in front of him. Weigle takes every opportunity to express Berg’s lyricism rather than his harshness. (I was reminded of Richard Strauss’ admonition to the orchestra at the premiere of Elektra to play softly because the music on the page was already so loud.) One of the production’s real mistakes is Bieito’s decision to keep the stage lit and the action going during Berg’s all-important orchestral interludes. Berg’s transitions are descriptive enough and need no distractions; thanks to Weigle and his orchestra they almost have their full effect. The overwhelming interlude before the opera’s last scene is beautifully played; Bieito’s intrusions upon it scarcely matter. And there are moments of such tenderness between Marie and her child that humanity does creep through. In addition, Weigle’s cast never overplays the Sprechgesang; there is always “gesang” present with Wozzeck and Marie, so we can continue to feel what softness has been left them. The orchestra’s control of dynamics, from Berg’s pppppp to fffff, can take your breath away.

The cast is remarkable. Franz Hawlata, all-too-human as Wozzeck, has a fine baritone, his pitched speaking as impressive as his more melodic work. He roams the last third of the opera filthy and shirtless, looking like someone on a terrible precipice, which is just what he is. He never breaks character. Angela Denoke, in red overalls like the other workers, has the full compass of the role of Marie both vocally and dramatically—so much a victim, so uncomprehending of what is going on around her, wanting just a bit more out of life. Hubert Delamboye’s Captain is terrifying, his falsetto like a train whistle. Johann Tilli’s Doctor is not someone you’d want to meet on a dark street; his cannibalism seems the least of his issues. David Kuebler as Andres sings stentorianly and with misguided passion; Reiner Goldberg’s Drum Major is glitter and no-substance, sort of an even-dumber and more treacherous Siegfried. And once Steven Cole’s Fool opens his mouth and starts wailing, there’s no turning back.

My first choice of video Wozzecks remains the 1971 film; this version is startling in its unpleasantness, and as such becomes a work of art, albeit a work hard to come to terms with. Perhaps it’s a misreading—maybe Bieito is telling us that our environment can make us insane, and that isn’t quite Berg’s point. But it is ferocious in its persuasiveness, the opera is superbly served musically, and you won’t forget it.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group