Archive for December, 2010


December 15, 2010

Georg Büchner, a medical doctor and a lecturer of anatomy at the University of Zürich, devoted a considerable time of his short life (he died at the age of 23) studying the humanities and the utopian theories of Babeuf and Saint-Simon of how this world could be a better place.

His play is about a disoriented WWI soldier named Woyzek, destitute and lost in his postwar life. He  kills the woman with whom he has been living out-of-wedlock and who is the mother of his child.  This play inspired Alban Berg to write his one and only finished opera: Wozzeck. (Berg died before he completed his second and last opera, Lulu.)  From the standpoint of music, the opera Wozzeck marked a revolutionary departure from melody and harmony into a new form known as atonal music. Buchner’s story of Woyzek was transcribed into loosely connected scenes of libretto, which present in fragments Wozzeck’s inner struggle with the outside world, in which he is a helpless infinitesimal fragment. Wozzeck is a part of the biomass of humankind, a sort of manure for growth of mad militant dictators hand in hand with pseudo-science.

Wozzeck is unconscious of himself and his position and confused in the cacophony of messages he receives by his rational and intuitive faculties from the sources that represent love, family, responsibility and duty, but also faith and healing. The resultant of the voices in which the outer world is speaking to Wozzeck is to keep him outwardly an obedient servant and inwardly entrapped in his own guilt and fear. Wozzeck, an undeveloped and unconscious human being on the receiving end of the world’s demands which as they are becoming heavier and stronger exert pressure on him that he cannot absorb or transform. Wozzeck breaks down into violence, killing his wife and leaving behind his child, who stands no better chance than his parents. And the world goes round again. The world represented by Wozzeck is a hopeless unpleasant world of poor and miserable people, seldom associated with the idea of “human”.  If the popularity of Wozzeck is a sign of recognition, the world depicted in this opera appears to be equally recognizable to audiences 85 years ago when it was premiered in Berlin with remarkable success, and nowadays when staged with creative liberties of the Regietheater.

I watched two productions of Wozzeck on DVD: one by Peter Mussbach (his La Traviata was reviewed on this blog earlier) and the other one by Calixto Bieito (his Don Giovanni is the preceding entry on this site).


In the dramatization of Wozzeck by Peter Mussbach (1996) recorded on DVD under studio conditions of the Frankfurter Oper,  the characters are raised to the level of categories and portrayed by amplifying the  main feature that describes and destinies each of them profoundly. Soldier Wozzeck dressed in white pajamas and underwear represents any man who has nothing in this world but his bare life, for which he has to toil every day. His confused and clueless anxiety is at the forefront of his helplessness. The costume and make-up of the Drum Major is brilliantly amplified to a grotesque combination of his opulent crimson coat juxtaposed with fuchsia-colored spielhosen revealing his silk and foam-stitched faux naked form, deteriorated over decades of the idle, impotent life of bureaucratic righteousness and false merit. Kristine Ciezinski as fragile and vulnerable Marie added a touch of feminine beauty contributing to the tension of Mussbach’s scene, which is clean and uncluttered. The descriptive embellishments are reduced to a minimum and the whole visual aspect is deliberately stripped of any decorative elements. His reading of the libretto comes from the realms of general and universal ideas stated in clean and powerful visual language, leaving ample blank space for psychological, historical and contextual reading in. This brings up the universality and generality of the world as seen by Georg Buchner and Alban Berg.

The Wozzeck opera consists of 15 scenes, which appear as a series of cameos divided from each other by the projected image of the stone-like square rotating and diving, or emerging from the depth, suggesting a world of rigid form different from the smoothening and reconciling qualities of a sphere, hinting at unnatural and destructive aberration.   

Many lines in this libretto have a proverbial quality and are food for thought, which Alban Berg serves raw, digestible only in the process of pondering, such as:

It must be nice to be virtuous Herr Hauptmann.  

Man’s individuality is his freedom.

A good man should be grateful to God; a good man does not need courage. Only a rotter needs courage.

Can mortal sin be so beautiful?

How could God create a landlord and a soldier if he had not created  Man with the urge to shoot and kill and quench his thirst?

And here is the one suitable for reflecting upon high inflation or stock market large-scale fraud: “Even money turns rot”

Calixto Bieito is less open-ended and provides more context-specific reading. His dramatization digs in our guts and what he finds there he throws straight in our faces. The environment of his Wozzeck is a vast, industrial, massive-scale labour force in which, analogous to a soldier in an army, Wozzeck appears as a simple manual laborer. He is like a cell in a body, one of myriad similar cells, which die and are born again, perpetually  providing the vital substance to the superior in order above him, which thrives off his pulsating flesh. Live bodies or corpses appear piled on top of a chart below which are monitors showing surgery extracting or mending those bodies as mere machines. The doctor appears as a superstar entertainer possessing some visual elements of the glitter and shine associative of Elvis Presley and whose purpose is to induce the effect of oblivion on those living life in the lower order. Wozzeck’s home is an industrial container, and Wozzeck and Marie’s child cannot breathe without the aid of an oxygen mask. In this machinery-world nothing is natural. Not even the liquid with which Wozzeck waters his turf like grass in a rectangular tin jardinière, the only chattel in his container-home. The world of Wozzeck’s camerades feels as if bolted to the maze of pipes which they mend, all dressed in the same overalls uniform, their faces soiled by smears of industrial dirt. Angela Denoke as Marie recognizes the moments when singing has to cease and uttering an uncontrollable shriek is the only way to deliver a line of desperation. Dale Duesing as Wozzeck is convincingly detached and disoriented throughout, displaying no emotion. His Wozzeck is only one step removed from the worker ant of an ant-hill community.  His misplaced act of violence, killing the only person who has any meaning in his life, carries the residual quality that distinguishes him from a complete automaton.  

Consistent with this line of storytelling is the character of the Drum Major, who is only slightly different from Wozzeck and his fellow slaves. He is merely a passing mutant whose purpose will be eradicated with the last rebellious and violent act of Wozzeck. His dyed hair and golden chain will become obsolete and rudimentary.      

Whether Wozzeck is represented as a helpless human being in a white informal outfit, or as a soldier according to the libretto,  or as an industrial worker as in Calixto Bieito’s dramatization, provides only an angle to a story which for 85 years has challenged humankind to look at itself for what it really is.  

Yesterday was the  85th anniversary of the day  Wozzeck was first staged in Berlin on December 14, 1925.

It would be interesting to see a new production with a twist, staging this opera in the context of the stock exchange or perhaps royal chambers.  It is not as unimaginable as it may seem.