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(Credit: Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz)
(Credit: Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz)

All's Atonal on the Western Front

Carolyn Stewart

This year’s Salzburg Festival performance of Alban Berg’s 1925 opera Wozzeck captures the essence of World War I and the violent potential of mankind’s dehumanizing tendencies.

The World War I memorial in Washington, DC, is very well-mannered. Ten fluted columns support a white marble dome, tucked away on a strip of lawn between Constitution Avenue and the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool. It doesn’t demand attention, will gladly shelter weary tourists, and is forgiving of errant kick balls sent flying by congressional staffers. Occasionally, it becomes a memorial to eternal love and happiness when it is co-opted as an impromptu wedding altar. To be specific, it memorializes citizens of the District of Columbia who fought in the Great War. But with no formal national World War I memorial, it’s the only one we have in our nation’s capital.

For many, our conception of World War I is not unlike DC’s understated memorial. From what little we remember of it from school, we may recall it as a war gracious enough to have a definitive beginning and end, with a clear cast of characters. The scope of tragedy—nine million combatants killed, seven million civilians—is so overwhelming, we almost gladly relegate it to history book status.

To comprehend 16 million deaths, we might begin with two fictional ones.

Wozzeck, the 1925 opera written by an Austrian solder who served the entire length of World War I, provides a singular entry point into the chaos and tragedy of those who experienced the war firsthand. Alban Berg composed the opera and wrote its libretto precisely for the shattered societies coming to terms with a world irrevocably changed. While centered on war, Wozzeck is far from a historical retelling. The source of its inspiration is an unfinished stage play written by Georg Büchner nearly a century earlier.

At this year’s Salzburg Festival, the annual, month-long celebration of opera and music where Europe’s well-heeled come to play, South African universal artist William Kentridge directed a standout production of Berg’s Wozzeck, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic led by Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic. Markus Hinterhaüser, the new artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, tapped Kentridge and Jurowski as part of his larger design to reflect on the strategies of power, the “loss of human connections and the slipping of social structures.” And so he did, with an unforgettable staging of Wozzeck that delves into the violent potential of mankind’s dehumanizing tendencies. Metropolitan Opera subscribers will have the opportunity to attend Kentridge’s same production of Wozzeck in the 2019–20 season, where it will surely challenge James Levine’s much-beloved stagings of Berg.

What is tragedy in the age of mass casualty warfare? Berg answers this question with the story of a simple soldier whose dignity is slowly dismantled by his superior, lover, and comrades until he breaks under the strain. In the process, Berg broke with dramatic tradition and centered his opera on the working class, using a new tonal language for a recently scarred world. In Salzburg, Kentridge drew on his own darkly expressive artistic style and decades of theatre experience to create a restaging that is honest in spirit and free of gimmicks. Paired with Jurowski’s powerful conducting, the cumulative result is poignant storytelling that scours audiences raw.

The title character, Wozzeck, is a soldier whose life consists of performing remedial tasks for the Captain. To supplement his meager earnings, Wozzeck submits to medical experimentation at the hands of the Doctor, enduring horrifying visions that loosen his grip on sanity. He shares his wages with his common-law wife Marie and their son, who are increasingly alienated by Wozzeck’s erratic behavior. Marie’s eventual infidelity, coupled with the cruel treatment of the other soldiers, ultimately leads Wozzeck to murder his only love and accidentally commit suicide. War does not allow for noble deaths, as Berg and his disillusioned countrymen have learned.

Nothing could have prepared Europe for the mass conflagration that began in the summer of 1914. In the decades leading up to the war, the belief prevailed that industrial growth had brought a new era of economic interdependence and peace ensured by commerce. When warfare did occur, blood was primarily shed on foreign soil. Colonial powers sought to partition the African continent, where battles were short and with comparatively low body counts. The asymmetrical nature of these campaigns would devastate African kingdoms, while fueling stories of battlefield glory across Europe.

The romance of military service would ensnare Alban Berg, then a young Viennese musician, impelling him to join the Austro-Hungarian Army at the outset of war. Like many others, Berg had little conception of just how quickly and brutally the war would escalate. French artillery officers still wore white pants and red-plumed hats into battle, making fine target practice in uniforms that had hardly changed in a century. “You cannot stop me; I spend thirty thousand men in a month,” wrote Napoleon Bonaparte to an Austrian adversary in 1810. Nearly a century later during World War I, France would lose that many men in a single day.

Asthma attacks would preclude Berg’s assignment to combat duty, and he spent most of the war doing deskwork at the Ministry of War. In a letter to his wife, he described the experience as leaving him “sick, captive, resigned, in fact, humiliated.” Wozzeck would become the vehicle for the profound disillusionment he and others felt during the war. He first became familiar with the tragic story when he attended a staging of Georg Büchner’s play Voyczeck months before the war. Berg began arranging a libretto based on the grim story, but paused his work to join his brothers in arms. When he returned to his unfinished libretto after Germany’s surrender, the circumstances of life had diverged profoundly from just a few years earlier.

On the day that Wozzeck first premiered in Berlin in 1925, concert halls were filled with people facing a complete breakdown of society. The war had ended seven years earlier. Political assassinations and coup attempts occurred seasonally in the Weimar Republic, and hyperinflation made a loaf of bread worth more than many elderly Germans’ life savings. Carl Zuckmayer, writing at the time, described Berlin’s atmosphere: “People were nervous and ill-humored. The streets were dirty and thronged with beggars, war-blinded and legless men.”

No aria of the past could portray this nightmarish new reality. The major-minor tonal vocabulary of Mozart, and even Mahler’s late Romantic style, was insufficient to express the nihilism that surrounded Berg. So he turned to the 12-tone musical theories pioneered by his teacher, Arnold Schönberg, to compose Wozzeck’s now-infamous music. Each word of the libretto is freed to inhabit its own expressive shape, unencumbered by strictures of melody. This allowed for “traces of blood in [the] fairy tale,” as Berg’s contemporary Theodore Adorno, put it. Wozzeck’s suffering and confusion is woven throughout the score. While the opera is highly structured, with 15 scenes equally divided over three acts, its technical mastery is intentionally obscured by Berg. The cumulative effect is an aural submersion that leaves listeners struggling to stay above the rising tide.

In the new production of Wozzeck, William Kentridge doubles down on the profound ruination contained in Berg’s libretto. Destruction becomes the inspiration, artistic process, and visual style that gives shape to the opera.

Kentridge sets his production in World War I-era Flanders, a region that served as a battlefield throughout the war. Entire prosperous towns were ground down by artillery. Atrocities against Belgian civilians were rife as German armies occupied villages and practiced collective punishment, with little distinction between military and civilian lives. In Flander’s fields the Battle of Ypres brought a half-million casualties on all sides, as well as the first use of poison gas on the Western Front. These historical associations bleed into the opera’s libretto as a nightmare lingers at the edges of consciousness. When Wozzeck hallucinates and sings “it’s strangely still and close, so close that it chokes you, stifles you. . . . Fire! Fire! It rises from earth, up to heaven,” he brings to mind a spiritual medium sensing the psychological scars imprinted on the land.

Charcoal, itself a product of incinerated wood, is key to Kentridge’s stage design. The artist would drag sticks of raw charcoal across rough-toothed paper, creating dark, soot-filled sketches of crumbling villages and battle-scarred fields. Drawings were torn up and stitched back together in the style of a Dada collage. This art would then be converted into stage-cloaking digital projections, where performers seem to emerge and dissolve effortlessly into the fog of war. Here, we see Kentridge’s particular talents as a multimedia artist and filmmaker inform the production. The projections created a slowly changing scrim of madness that kept the audience teetering between Wozzeck’s hallucinations and Marie’s war-devastated reality.

This is Wozzeck performed to its full potential, and it is many things—beautiful, devastating, masterful—but it is not feel-good opera.

We first encounter Wozzeck (baritone Matthias Goerne) as he is passing the barber’s blade under the chin of the Captain (tenor Gerhard Siegel), a staunchly bourgeois moralizer. Wozzeck must walk more slowly, the Captain admonishes, to be a man above reproach—a barbed reference to his subordinate’s illegitimate son and common-law wife, Marie. After tolerating the Captain’s cruel posturing for so long, Wozzeck explodes: “Wretches like us! Oh, if I were well bred and had a top hat, then I would be virtuous too! Men like us always will be unfortunate in this world and in any other world! If we ever got to heaven, we’d all have to manufacture thunder!” The Captain seeks to pacify Wozzeck with assurances that he is “a decent man,” that badge of approval with class connotations.

When we meet Marie (soprano Asmik Grigorian), she is locked in a loveless and menacing relationship with Wozzeck. Her only companion is their young son, a gas mask-wearing puppet unobtrusively maneuvered by minders in nurse costumes. “Girls like us have just a corner in the world and a shard of mirror . . . and yet, I have lips every bit as red as society ladies,” she sings to her son. Grigorian deftly plays the role with a light touch. Her Marie isn’t the seductress or wrathful figure of other Wozzecks, but a girl playacting adulthood, capricious and full of energy. When Marie succumbs to the aggressive advances of the Drum Major (heldentenor John Daszak), she is searching for validation with either foolish or nihilistic abandon.

All the while, Wozzeck endures hallucinations of hellfire as the Doctor’s test subject. In Berg’s world, we are reminded that scientific research was often focused towards lethal, rather than life-saving ends. Performed with brisk conviction by bass Jens Larsen, the Doctor giddily anticipates the suffering he’ll inflict on his journey to Hippocratic glory. Word spreads that Marie is sleeping with the Drum Major, and the other soldiers endlessly mock Wozzeck.

The tension reaches a near-breaking point when the Drum Major confronts Wozzeck at the tavern and wrestles him to the ground, just for the vicious pleasure of causing humiliation. Berg’s crass libretto still packs a punch. “Shall I pull your tongue out of your throat and wrap it around your neck?” the Drum Major asks Wozzeck while pinning him under a chair. “Shall I squeeze you ’til you’ve no more breath than an old woman’s fart?” At home, the barely-literate Marie is struggling to read her Bible and pleading with God to forgive her sins.

Baritone Matthias Goerne steers his Wozzeck to his devastating conclusion. Menacing one moment and confused by visions the next, the baritone delivers on the psychological demands of this role with some of the finest expressive singing and acting of the festival season. After confronting Marie about her affair, he leads her deep into Kentridge’s black charcoal swamps. She’s frightened, a girl in a poppy red dress several sizes too large. Wozzeck stands motionless, looming behind Marie with thunderous restraint. Seconds bleed by, and Wozzeck’s stillness slowly tightens the wire connecting him to every member of the audience. Marie sees the red moon rising in the distance—“like iron washed in wet blood,” Wozzeck offers. He plunges a knife into her throat. I release my breath.

In those last moments with Marie, Goerne inhabits Wozzeck’s silence with the intensity of a full-throated aria. All of the cruelty, all of the harassment endured by Wozzeck is contained in this single gesture of killing. The singularity of the act was important to Berg. In his production notes, he states that “everything that follows refers musically only to Marie and to her death. Any further carnage must therefore be avoided!”

At the Berlin State Opera in 1925, the premiere of Wozzeck scandalized critics and attendees alike. Put glibly by a critic at the time, “the unprecedented intensity of expression in Wozzeck continues to present many problems to an unprepared audience.” But the notoriously challenging opera quickly spread and was embraced across cultures and by former adversaries. It was performed on 25 different stages within five years. A performance in 1926 was shut down by nationalist demonstrations in Prague; in 1927 it premiered in Leningrad, and by 1931 premiered in Philadelphia under conductor Leopold Stokowski.

What is the point to all this suffering? The social message of a worker oppressed by the ruling class resonated with many at the time. There is no hope for Wozzeck and his petit bourgeois to ever join their better-heeled counterparts. Emotionally, there is a distinct pleasure to be found in watching Wozzeck suffer. Aristotle pointed out 2,500 years ago that effective tragedy causes us to feel pity and fear when we see a decent soul violated. A little selfishly, we are frightened at the possible violation of our own (undoubtedly) decent souls. Kentridge’s production of Wozzeck creates a potent distillation of these emotions, using moments of pain to bring into focus what we are afraid to lose.

In the age of mass casualty warfare, Berg’s opera takes the dehumanizing nature of reality and renders it in deeply humanistic terms. Dramatic tragedy, in its new form, acknowledges the profound disillusionment caused by war and elevates the wholesale violation of human dignity as a topic worthy of focus. For the first time in popular opera, Berg gave arias to “die Arme Leute”—the wretches like us, as Wozzeck exclaims.

Tragic suffering has long been the domain of the ruling class, in a tradition extending back to when Homer had King Priam kiss the hands of the man who murdered his son. Opera that concerns itself with war has also focused on the ruling class, with a few singing notaries mixed in. Aida has its Ethiopian princess and its captain of the guard; Norma has its high priestess and Roman proconsul; Così fan tutte’s devious soldiers are officers; La Fille du Regiment features a Noah’s Ark of military leadership. But the award may go to Prokofiev’s adaptation of War and Peace, with its singing Napoleon Bonaparte (performed with artistic license by a baritone).

The common man is capable of tragic suffering, Berg asserts, and deserving of the validation occasioned by an audience. Yet respect and dignity remain out of reach. While Wozzeck’s suffering is tragic, it is far from noble. He accidentally drowns himself while attempting to recover his murder weapon. When he screams for help, no one comes to his aid. The triviality of Wozzeck’s death is underlined when his son comes across his body, and not recognizing his father, hops along on his hobbyhorse. This represents a shocking departure from the canon of operatic deaths. But for a disillusioned audience recovering from World War I, Wozzeck’s death may be more relatable than two lovers who seal themselves in a tomb for all of eternity.

When 500,000 men die in a single battle, the sheer scale of loss is numbing. The hopelessness feels too abstract to allow more than a passing thought. In telling a singularly tragic tale, Berg and Kentridge condense the irredeemable tragedy of war into a story that is deeply relatable. That a common man’s suffering could occupy a night of opera and the same stage as kings might be more significant than a happy ending.

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