The public arrives in finery and leaves in shock. For its annual Eastertide Festwochen, the Staatsoper Berlin raises prices and brings in stars for a few days of income-generating musical bling. But Andrea Breth’s grim new Wozzeck for the house is anything but festive. With Barenboim at the helm and a strong cast of singer-actors, the Staatsoper, in its temporary home at the Schiller Theater, has come up with a Wozzeck that will go down in Berlin’s musical history. This dark, intense production is made so well that it feels like a 100-minute nightmare. The effect is traumatic. Breth holds rigidly to Berg’s dystopian vision. Rather than update or reinterpret, she pares down and heightens the drama to a pitch that falls just short of grotesque. Martin Zehetgruber’s sets are a series of barred cells. The protagonists live in poverty, in crippling confines that foster violence, desperation and madness. There is no hope, no light, no future.
The liberties that Breth takes only intensify the pain. In the second scene, Wozzeck and Andres are skinning hares, not cutting wood. The naked corpses look like boiled babies. Andres is smeared with blood, Wozzeck clutches an empty white fur in a vain search for comfort. The beer garden second act is an open toilet area where a handful of miserable revellers vomit, urinate and rape. Amid this hell, the Captain and the Doctor are depressingly sane, making their systematic humiliation of Wozzeck all the more bleak.
Roman Trekel’s Wozzeck is modest, cowed and fastidiously detailed. There are no transcendental flights of baritonal lyricism. Instead, he sets all at the service of Breth’s vision, giving us a victim with a soul and a chance of survival. Nadja Michael’s Marie is neurotic and damaged, John Daszak’s drum-major brutish, Graham Clark’s Captain precise and chilling. Pavlo Hunka uses a distressing level of vocal warmth and subtlety to make the Doctor a sociopath.
Barenboim is in his element with a piece that he knows like his own soul and that brings all his considerable strengths to the fore. He conducts with a devastatingly effective mixture of transparency, structure, control, brutality and refinement, and the orchestra gives him everything. This Wozzeck unfolds like a long-buried memory, every detail so absolutely right that it seems it must always have been that way. It is very nasty indeed, and it is a triumph.