Wozzeck, Opera by A. Berg
Wozzeck is not an ‘easy’ opera: Its subject matter is bleak, and its atonal score does not suit traditional tastes. And yet the seminal work by modernist composer Alban Berg enjoys regular revivals and unyielding respect from audiences, critics, and fellow composers. Wolfgang Rihm famously dubbed Wozzeck “the opera of the [20th] century”. It had its successful premiere on 14 December 1925 at the Berlin State Opera, from whence it took European stages by storm. The opera’s success was at least partially due to its shocking, naturalistic depictions of soldier life and prospectless rural existence. This season Wozzeck returns to the Vienna State Opera in all its visceral glory.
Berg based Wozzeck on the unfinished play Woyzeck by German dramatist Georg Büchner. The composer attended the play’s initial production in 1914 and developed an obsession with it. World War I interrupted Berg’s creative process, but the experiences he gathered on the frontlines, in captivity, and in the field hospital bled into his work. We likely owe Wozzeck’s hard-hitting realism and gritty atmosphere to these first-hand experiences during the Great War. Büchner died before completing his play, so Berg took it upon himself to pick out 15 scenes and create a libretto with a coherent storyline.
Wozzeck tells the story of the titular character, a soldier who takes abuse and disrespect from his Captain, his doctor, and his lover Marie, with whom he has fathered a son. Forced into a life of subservience and poverty, the otherwise intelligent and well-read young man slowly descends into madness. Terrible visions torment him, and the realisation of Marie’s infidelity pushes him over the edge. A series of violent encounters and deeds, from which there is no coming back, ensue.
To go with Wozzeck’s dark story, Alban Berg developed an inventive atonal score that generations of composers and critics would come to admire and study keenly. Characters’ emotional states and motivations find free musical expression, and clever leitmotifs establish coherence, while fixed pitches and tonal combinations signal plot lines and major milestones. Wozzeck thus combines drama and musical invention of the highest order, and it is well worth the time of any serious opera fan.