Wozzeck is one of the darkest operas of the 20th century. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, it wavers in tone between satire and tragedy. And like Hamlet, there are doubts about the lead character's sanity. He is totally alone in trying to make sense of his world and in confronting his demons. But unlike the character Hamlet, Wozzeck is not intelligent; in fact, he is quite dense and much of the tragedy stems from others taking advantage of his obtuse nature. Wozzeck, a man whose thinking is derailed by horrific fantasies, is surrounded by people who hardly think at all. Has Berg given us a portrait of 19th century military life in Germany or a general statement about life's savagery? It almost doesn't matter, because the music, on the cusp between Mahlerian chromaticism and burgeoning atonality, is compelling throughout. Pundits have strewn much verbiage about this work's structure, its scenes that contain passacaglias, fugues, inventions, rhapsodies, and suites. The strings express a chaotic fugue in the trio between Wozzeck, the captain, and the doctor. In this cramped expressionist dimension, folk songs have an atonal edge, sunsets are fires that rattle, dance melodies are off-key and menacing, and lullabies are anything but soothing. Tension frequently erupts, only to suddenly subside. There is satire, as in the captain's falsettos whenever he's pompous or confused. And there are splendid effects for a stage production, like the striking one in which we see the last of Wozzeck, the man who "sliced like knife through the world."
I believe this recording is the only video version available. Luckily it is a good one. The cast is universally excellent, particularly Franz Grundheber's Wozzeck, who manages to evince sympathy, and Behrens, whose ambivalent Marie does not. The orchestral interludes, so perceptively performed by Abbado, enhance and heighten the tension. According to Berg, however, these musical devices are secondary. "Everyone should be filled only by idea of the opera, an idea which far transcends the individual fate of Wozzeck."
Copyright © 2002, Peter Bates