Alban Berg‘s opera Wozzeck is a musical psychodrama. But there is a plot, too. Tonight’s performance at the Salzburg Festival fully captured the musical part, but as for the plot… not so much.
The director, William Kentridge, a South African cartoonist, openly admitted he wanted to stage the music and not the text, as the music discloses what the characters are really thinking, as opposed to the words they might sing. So he filled the stage with clutter, projected cartoons both on a movie screen and more generally on top of the scenery, and mostly did not bother with the plot. This was not German Regietheater, designed to shock, but actually an attempt to elucidate what the opera was about. Unfortunately, the approach added nothing, but did cause unwanted distraction.
On the other hand, by making the plot irrelevant, Kentridge did succeed in pushing the attention fully onto the music (assuming we could ignore the staging – and actually I found I could: again, as it was not Regietheater it did not tell a different plot but rather simply provided cluttered and sometimes silly asides that matched the extremes in the music if not the text). On this count the performance shone. The Vienna Philharmonic in the pit is unrivaled as an opera orchestra. And conductor Vladimir Jurowski, one of the stars of his 40-ish generation, truly understood the opera’s meaning in ways that Kentridge could not, entirely making up for Kentridge’s failings and allowing the audience to bask in the lush music. Although atonal, Berg’s opera is not without pure music, and its contortions do allow an exploration of the psychoses that inspired the plot.
Although most of the singing characters have their personal issues to explore, these are only really developed in one: the title role Wozzeck. So while the cast this evening managed strong portrayals despite Kentridge’s direction (and aided by Jurowski’s sensible balancing of the music), only Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck stood out, giving a full and brooding performance of the feeble-minded and disturbed soldier.
Would a concert performance have been better? Perhaps. But maybe it ironically took Kentridge’s absurdities to focus attention more on the music. And if that was his intention, then maybe he succeeded after all.