Those who find Tokyo life insipid should check out the carnage and passion promoted nightly at the New National Theater in Hatsudai. Their 2009 presentation of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, co-produced with the Bavarian State Opera, is another milestone of this theater’s climb to greatness, after its successes with Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten.
Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly beheaded in Leipzig in 1824 for the murder of his mistress, after his insanity defense – one of the first in legal history – had been twice rejected. Controversy about this rumbled on and moved a medical student of revolutionary leanings, Georg Büchner, to pen fragments of a drama just before his own death from typhus in 1837 at the age of 23. Neither the criminal nor the student could have foreseen their 20th century fame.
Decades passed. Büchner’s damaged pages were retrieved, treated chemically, and deciphered. In 1913 his play was staged at last, with electrifying effect. Berg, shaken by the Vienna première, went straight home to begin work on the music-drama that would occupy him until 1922 and that has held its own, ever since its first performance in Berlin in 1925, as a central work of musical Modernism.
Director Andreas Kriegenburg has only recently turned to opera, and this is his first international venture in the medium. His staging has two poles: a mobile yellowish box, claustrophobic and grimy, is Wozzeck’s world; the dark pond beneath represents the outside world, a messy, splashy place where the homeless unemployed, shadowy figures in black, gobble up left-overs; some have given up and lie dead in the water.
The production centers firmly on Wozzeck as an individual, a man who wants to be a good husband and father, but is crushed by lack of money. In some productions the protagonist is psychotic from the start, but baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer scotches that stereotype by his imposing stature and stately bearing. He sounds quite sane and educated as he expounds his philosophy in the first scene. His spooky visions in the second scene clash with this, but one notes that they are expressed in correct quotations from the Bible.
He is harried by guilt at not being able to support his family properly. He is pushed into madness by the pillars of society – the obese Captain (Volker Vogel) and the mad-scientist Doctor (Tsumaya Hidekazu) – who gloat over his mistress’s amours, destroying his domestic refuge. These characters are portrayed as grotesque slugs, crawling out of a Kafka nightmare. We are seeing them through Wozzeck’s eyes. The Doctor wears a corset as he experiments on his guinea-pig Wozzeck, scolding him for wasting his urine sample (for ‘coughing’ in the original libretto that Berg had to bowdlerize). Such dreamlike figures hardly constitute a telling comment on social hypocrisy. The socio-political references in this production are cardboard images of oppression. The director foreswore the obvious ploy of making a connection with present problems.
Wozzeck’s home life is portrayed in naturalistic, down to earth terms, and his psycho-economic problems never swell into cosmic delirium, metaphysical alienation. Some will miss the cold, sardonic edge one expects in expressionist drama, the chill of the uncanny. Even the murder scene was played in a low-key, sadly resigned style, without tension and terror.
The boy (Nakajima Kenichiro), darts about like a squirrel, mobile and omnipresent. In the first scene he is busy playing with his monkey-doll, and jumps up onto his father with tremendous affection. He is a budding graffito artist, scrawling ‘Papa’ on the wall of the box-home, or, as things degenerate, ‘Whore’ to describe his mother. He swiftly traces a line all around the box as a protest against confining circumstance. He even joins in a public demonstration: as the faceless homeless demand work he boldly scrawls ‘Money!’ on the stage curtain. The affective disturbance in his little world is supposed to reflect the cruelty of society. Leaving childhood behind, he casts down his toy, and takes up his father’s knife, ready for the grim struggle. At the curtain-calls, Wozzeck, Marie and the boy appeared together as a model happy family, neat and smiling.
The last orchestral interlude, a threnody in D minor, the key of the Ninth Symphony, expresses compassion for suffering humanity, perhaps with reference to the War. Berg called it ‘the composer’s confession, an appeal to the audience, here meant to represent humanity itself.’ But this production keeps the limelight on Wozzeck’s dead body – he has joined the number of the vanquished – and on the boy, who sits on the body and flashes his torch into the eyes of the audience. This does not quite capture the Everyman dimension that Berg added to Büchner.
The Tokyo Philharmonia Orchestra are new to this demanding score, which must be particularly rewarding because the texture of the writing is so transparent that every note counts and can be clearly heard, and because it is full of interesting solo parts, such as the viola and bassoon cadenzas in the first scene. Hartmut Haenchen, the Dresden-born conductor, declared himself impressed by the proficiency of the players. He rose to the challenge of coordinating the orchestra, the on-stage military band and tango orchestra, the back-stage drums, and the singers who use four different kinds of vocal technique. He kept abreast with the mobility of Berg’s invention. Berg is ‘the master of the tiniest transitions’ (Adorno), and at every moment the music is turning in unexpected directions, always introducing something other, something new, while the tempo constantly shifts. To relax into routine is to lose the thread and court disaster.
This music fuses an outreach to popular culture with mastery of arcane musical structure, much as Mahler had done; indeed Haenchen likes to call Wozzeck ‘Mahler’s 11th Symphony!’ Every note of the score has its deep musical logic, yet subserves drama and characterization. The formal design is extremely rich – for instance there is a passacaglia on a twelve-note theme with 21 variations to characterize the Doctor. Yet the score is also awash with eloquent Wagnerian leitmotifs, and it mischievously quotes Beethoven, Schumann, Mahler and Strauss. It is not a consistently atonal work; there is even a passage in bread-and-butter C major, at the center of the opera, where Wozzeck hands Marie his wages, a fleeting vision of a normal, wholesome world.
The cool, formal aspect of the work, which retains a certain ironic distance from the dramatic action, was perhaps understressed in this performance. The first word of the libretto is ‘slowly,’ and one could have wished for a more contemplative lingering on the musical structure for its own sake as well as for its dramatic function, and for a sharper sense of dialectical tension between the mandarin and the demotic sides of the music. No previous opera demanded such a conjunction of the virtues of the concert hall with those of the opera house. The double challenge was creditably faced in a performance of which all who contributed to it can be proud.