Review: Humanizing “Wozzeck”- Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece, April 17, 2007

Is it possible for a bi-coastal American creative team, centered in the San Diego opera and theatre communities and New York City’s Broadway theatre district, to mount a production of Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” so revelatory that it may change the way the public thinks about that opera? Is it possible that such a team might create a production that excels anything that might expect to see in the Germanic countries that were the opera’s crucible?

[Below: the Basic Set for the San Diego Opera production of Berg’s”Wozzeck”, the Tavern Scene in view; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Occasionally a new production of an opera will be a transformative experience.  One such case is the San Diego Opera production of Berg’s “Wozzeck”.

This is not a work for which there was strong demand in San Diego’s opera-going audiences, and most audiences in other opera cities seem content if it is revived only once every couple of decades.

One obvious reason for such attitudes is that the work, whose first performance precedes that of the first for Puccini’s melodious “Turandot” by less than five months, seems spare in music in its first hearing. This impression changes as one gets to know the work better. One’s head is filled with the lush post-Wagnerian orchestration of several of the last scenes, the myriad and witty tunes of the tavern scenes, and the exotic harmonies played by small subsets of the larger orchestra that occur throughout the work.

In preparation for the San Diego production I loaded Claudio Abbado’s Deutsche Grammophon CD of the work onto my Apple iPod, and was the only person I ran into that had “Wozzeck” as an iPod playlist. But, absent a determination to become familiar with the work, more patrons seem to be able to whistle the tunes from “Turandot” on leaving a performance of Puccini’s masterpiece than those that who can hum any musical phrase from “Wozzeck” after seeing the latter.

“Wozzeck”, of course, is fair game for concept directors, who appear to like to present it as some sort of freak show (e.g., Frankfurt Opera’s bizarre production with Dale Duesing as Wozzeck, available on commercial DVD, or as a Netflix rental). Such an approach does nothing to endear the opera to the average subscriber, whose desires, in these financially straitened times for opera companies, are ignored only at a general manager’s peril.

General Director Ian Campbell decided that it was time to introduce Berg’s masterwork to the San Diego Opera, scheduling four performances as part of its 45th season. (If this seems tardy, consider that the San Francisco Opera, which performs over twice as many operas per season and has many more performances than the San Diego company, did not mount the work until its 37th season, and scheduled only three performances at the War Memorial Opera House (with an additional two performances there two years later.)

Campbell conceived an ambitious project. He would not only introduce “Wozzeck” to San Diego audiences, he would also “introduce” a creative team with San Diego ties to the entire opera world by means of a new production of the seminal 20th century work.

There were undoubtedly many considerations in the decision to create a wholly new production of the work. First, it signalled the international opera community that San Diego can mount and perform even the most difficult of 20th century works. No guest conductor was sought for the assignment. Instead of importing a European (especially significant if a Viennese) conductor associated with the work, that assignment went to Karen Keltner, San Diego Opera’s popular resident conductor.

To conceive and direct the production, Campbell persuaded San Diego theatrical director Des McAnuff to assay the task, granting him complete artistic authority. McAnuff possesses two Tonies, that coveted icon of the American Theatre Wing, for Big River (1985) and The Who’s Tommy (1993).  McAnuff invited two 2006 Tony winners – Catherine Zuber (Awake and Sing!) to be his costume designer and Howell Binkley (Jersey Boys) as his lighting designer. This illustrious group was joined by Robert Brill, the set designer for the hit Broadway revival of Cabaret.

McAnuff is the General Director of the La Jolla Playhouse, one of the nation’s most important regional legitimate theatre companies, located in San Diego’s toniest (wordplay intentional) beach community.  Although he had never directed an opera, he regards Berg’s “Wozzeck” as his personal favorite of the genre.  He was familiar with the Buechner stage play, but regarded Berg’s opera as theatrically superior to Buechner’s presentation of the subject.  Additionally, he obviously was confident that the opera could be staged much more effectively than one expects to see in the world’s opera houses.

The decision was made (as Kurt Herbert Adler did for San Francisco Opera’s first performances of “Wozzeck” in 1960 and 1962) to present the opera in English, San Diego using an updated translation. Unlike the early San Francisco performances, which included an intermission after the barracks scene at the end of the second act, the San Diego production was presented without intermission (a convention since the mid-1960s observed by San Francisco Opera also).

[Below: Chris Merritt (The Captain), left, with Franz Hawlata (Wozzeck); edited image, based on a photograph by Ken Howard, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

A cast of extraordinary American singing actors was assembled for all the major roles excepting the most important. Europe was represented by the reigning Wozzeck of our time, German bass-baritone Franz Hawlata, who learned the role in English for the San Diego production.

“Wozzeck” is one of a small group of operas ultimately “based on” the lives of real persons, in this case Johann Woyzeck and his errant mistress. These are persons who, excepting their fates having interested first dramatist Georg Buechner and then – decades later – composer Alban Berg, otherwise would have little claim to historical significance. (See Douglas Jarman’s scholarly analysis of the opera, available in several different publications, including the dedicated Cambridge Opera companion book. I am indebted to Jarman for my understanding of the influence of an article in the psychiatric literature in late 1825 on Buechner’s play.)

Woyzeck was indeed a barber and former soldier who lived in post-Napoleanic Leipzig. In a fit of jealousy, he beheaded his mistress. A psychiatrist, J. C. A. Clarus, testified in court to his sanity and despite a then novel “insanity defense”, Woyzeck was found guilty of murder and hanged in 1824. Several months later, in a medical journal almost certainly read by Buechner’s physician father, Clarus defended his, by that time controversial, psychiatric evaluation of Woyzeck as an expert for the prosecution. Buechner’s play includes several lines that appear to come from Clarus’ article.

Campbell and McAnuff appeared sufficiently impressed by this deep background on the opera that they invited the San Diego City Attorney, who, taking time away from his ongoing prosecution of misdeeds of the former administrators of the San Diego employees pension fund, provided an insightful legal analysis of Wozzeck’s actions as related in the opera’s libretto. In an article prominent in the opera program, he concluded that, in the case of Wozzeck (the Buechner-Berg character, rather than Woyzeck), had he stood trial rather than drowned, his attorneys might have been successful in employing the tricky insanity defense.

Many opera companies launch new productions without consulting their city attorney’s office, or, apparently in the case of some concept directors, the source material or even the story itself. But I believe that the work of the San Diego – Broadway team attempted to understand the human situation that attracted, in different times, both Buechner and Berg.

What caused Wozzeck to buy a knife, and then lead Marie to a remote site to murder her?  As the unmarried mother of his child, he augments his low salary as a soldier with extra work as barber to the Captain and as the human subject of experiments by the Doctor. He works constantly to earn this pittance, which goes entirely to pay for Marie and the child.

Marie, living in desperate poverty, and consumed by the responsibilities of caring for a child, finds that the attentiveness of men and sexual pleasure is the only thing she has to live for, but even that causes her to feel guilt for betraying Wozzeck.

Wozzeck and Marie have a troubled relationship, but many couples have survived similar pressures without a murder and suicide. The catalyst to the destruction of these two human souls is the Drum Major, who seduces Marie, gives her baubles of a kind her impoverished lover cannot match, and is sufficiently indiscreet that both the Captain and Doctor are able to tease Wozzeck viciously about his mistress’ infidelities.

Wozzeck observes Marie and the Drum Major together at a bawdy tavern, and then suffers the indignity of the drunken Drum Major confronting Wozzeck in his barracks, the Drum Major awakening Wozzeck’s fellow soldiers to announce his conquest of Marie, which he then tops by picking a fight that ends with Wozzeck bloody and totally humiliated. Wozzeck has reached a breaking point, and one with which any opera audience should empathize.

McAnuff seizes the essence of the story and correctly focuses on the underlying trio of human relationships – father, mother and mother’s paramour. This is savage verismo, as stark a story as Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” a half dozen years before, or Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” a generation before, and as true to life.

Even the more bizarre characters – the Captain and Doctor – are within the range of human beings that one might encounter. I, myself, have worked with people in positions of authority in recent times who are at least as neurotic as the Captain, and, I suspect, among the denizens of some of our academic medical centers, are at least one or two people who would remind me of the sociopathic Doctor.

Yes, there is the temptation to produce “Wozzeck” as the machinations of a hallucinatory mind, so the Frankfurt freakshow and its ilk will have some defenders. But the more human and the less freaky that “Wozzeck” is presented, I believe, the more rewarding it is as drama, and, as an important by-product, the more accessible it is to opera audiences.

In the McAnuff production, there is a time shift 90 years forward to the period in which Berg himself was an inductee into the Austrian army. Zuber’s costumes very carefully observe that period. McAnuff’s stage direction portrays the natural interactions of the various characters, avoiding any hint of surreality.

In a master-stroke that displayed set designer’s Brill’s great technical skills, it is the unit set where surreality is allowed to flourish. A great circular metal set has been constructed, the metal covered with wood to appear to be the kind of claustrophobic amphitheatre with sharply tiered rows of seats that still exist as classrooms in some famous medical schools.

A large circular light fixture reminds one of the hospital operating room lights of earlier times, and is raised or lowered or changes positions from scene to scene. To observe the different place changes that occur in “Wozzeck’s” 15 scenes (five per act), the unit set revolves. The other distinctive feature of the production are projections of Wozzeck’s face – sometimes front views, sometimes profiles – that occur on a front stage scrim that is lowered during the orchestral interludes between the scenes.

In the first scene, in which Wozzeck is trimming the Captain’s hair, soldiers are on guard duty, pacing back and forth on the ampthitheatre’s top tier. Chris Merritt, in one of the great character roles that major opera stars assay in their later careers, plays the insensitive and often nearly hysterical Captain. Franz Hawlata’s dour Wozzeck replies to the incessant and invasive criticism of his superior officer that “it must be wonderful to be virtuous, Herr Hauptmann”.

In the next scene, Wozzeck and Andres (American tenor Joel Sorenson) are gathering firewood at the front of the stage, while many more soldiers roam about the amphitheatre and its stairs. The circular light slowly drops to the ground, as Wozzeck sees scary visions in the surrounding countryside.

The set turns to reveal its open backside with steps to the stage floor. This part of the set represents the room in which Marie (compellingly played by Nina Warren) lives with the child that Wozzeck fathered. Her neighbor Margret (Israeli mezzo Susana Poretsky) goads Marie about her obvious sexual fascination with other men.

In this critical scene, we begin to understand that the physical toll upon Wozzeck from his efforts to provide for Marie’s and the child’s physical well-being, prevents him from providing the social interaction and emotional support that each needs from him.

Two scenes later the Drum Major will appear at Marie’s door, exchanging a set of earrings for sexual satisfaction, setting into motion the series of interactions between herself and Wozzeck that will lead to her murder.

In a further turn of the set, Wozzeck is being prodded by the Doctor (played by an appropriately sinister Dean Peterson). The association of the amphitheatre set with a medical school is now explicit, as soldiers dressed as medical interns, wearing surgical masks and holding clipboards, peer down from the amphitheatre’s upper rows and the disk brightens to become a surgery room light. In the stage area in front of the unit set, the paraphenalia of the Doctor’s office, with jars of frogs in formaldehyde, is seen. The Doctor tests Wozzeck with calipers and even uses a rubber glove to give him a (discreetly staged) rectal exam.

When the Doctor next appears he and the Captain are walking along the periphery of the revolving unit set. The surgical amphitheatre is now an anatomy lab, with wrapped cadavers placed on the floors of the tiered rows throughout the set. Captain and Doctor taunt Wozzeck. In an imaginative staging of the scene, an ancient motorcycle with sidecar arrives to pick up the captain who has pointed a pistol at Wozzeck’s head.

Wozzeck in a rage confronts a defiant Marie. All discretion aside, she takes part in a lascivious dance with the Drum Major (another great role for Jay Hunter Morris) at the section of the unit set that represents the very public tavern. As the waltz music plays (sharing a phrase with the “Mit mir” waltz from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”) and the Drum Major, Marie and the drunken revellers dance, the set revolves.

The tavern scene reminds one of how deeply cast is this “Wozzeck”, with superb performances in the important comprimario roles of the two Journeymen (Scott Sikon and Daniel Hoy) and an Idiot (veteran Joseph Frank cast in a dramatically critical part, although one that sings only a few words).

The unit set’s next permutation is the barracks room of Wozzeck’s regiment, where the chorus representing the sleeping soldiers lie among the amphitheatre’s tiers. For the five scenes of the final act, the unit set and scrim projections permit a smoothly flowing denouement.

Marie, in her room, lies down by a candle reading the passages in her Bible about Mary Magdalene, while the boy sits on the floor. She walks with Wozzeck along the edges of the rotating set to the place by the pond. (The operating room light now represents the blood red moon for which Buechner’s play calls.)

She asks what he wants. As a violet light glows and the stage is lit green and blue, Wozzeck slits her throat from behind. As the scrim next rises, her body is seen at the edge of the tavern. The sets are white, with the bar’s chairs dropped on the floor. Wozzeck arrives barechested with bloody hands, and attracts the attention of the crowd. A bartender hands Marie’s Bible to Margret.

Wozzeck, remembering the knife, returns to the scene of the crime, as the scrim projections make clear Wozzeck’s disintegration and drowning. The unit set and foreground are filled with townspeople, with police officials conducting their crime scene investigation. In the chilling last scene, the boy with his hobby horse joins the other children to gawk at his mother’s body.

Above right: Franz Hawlata (Wozzeck) and Nina Warren (Marie), edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera. ]

My earliest associations with “Wozzeck” were with the San Francisco Opera’s company premiere production of the early 1960s (I first saw it in 1962), with the incomparable team of Sir Geraint Evans (Wozzeck), Marilyn Horne (Marie) in the role that first gained her international recognition, Richard Lewis as the Captain, Michael Langdon as the Doctor, the Metropolitan Opera heldentenor Brian Sullivan as the Drum Major and Janis Martin as Margret. The memory of their performances is still fresh after 45 years.

I have seen each of the five principals in the San Diego production, excepting Ms Warren, in other roles, notably including Hawlata’s Baron Ochs to the Marschallins of Renee Fleming (San Francisco 2000) and Soile Isokoski (Paris 2002). I believe the casting of this production was effective throughout, and Hawlata’s Wozzeck as an incomparable portrait, which truly focuses our empathy on this troubled human soul.

The most extraordinary physical feature of the production is the unit set. McAnuff, Brill and team have conceived a set that goes beyond the Doctor’s experimentation with Wozzeck.  To my mind, having the clinical images of the medical school-teaching hospital classroom focuses attention on just how much experiment and analysis one finds in the history of Berg’s opera.

We successively have the images of Woyzeck’s experimental insanity defense, of Clarus’ medical journal article on Woyzeck’s psychiatric state, and of Buechner’s experimentation with translating Woyzeck’s case into the context of drama.

Berg, himself, utilizes Buechner’s play as the mechanism for an entirely experimental presentation of dramatic content in operatic format, and he experiments with new ways of writing music and requires that his performers adopt new techniques for singing words to create the opera.

It is possible to make Berg’s “Wozzeck” uninteresting and inaccessible. Campbell, Keltner, McAnuff, Brill and company have demonstrated that the reverse is also true. They have, I believe, succeeded in a herculean task of creating the best production of “Wozzeck” in its history, from a region of the world not associated with performances of this work.

Paradoxically, although the massive set unit should be of international interest, its complex requirements (it takes a minimum of two days to construct) likely will make it a difficult production to be mounted by a repertory house, which must juggle the sets for three or more productions at a given time.

They may require that one travels to those cities whose opera companies produce one opera at a time and can secure the stage on which the unit set is built during the duration of its run. But it is worth the special effort to travel to whatever opera company might choose to mount the San Diego production, particularly if they have secured the services of Franz Hawlata to perform the “Wozzeck”. Both San Diego and Broadway should be proud of this production and its star performer.

Readers of the website will note that this is the second case discussed this year of an opera whose story derives from the real life victimization of a woman in Germany around the turn of the 19th century.

At that time it was apparently considered an appropriate punishment to behead an unmarried woman who has produced an illegitimate child, with one such execution witnessed by Goethe. In such a climate, one can re-construct the thought processes of the real life Woyzeck who beheaded his mistress when she betrayed him.

These separate incidents led to Goethe’s play “Faust Part One” and Buechner’s “Woyzeck”, which, respectively, contributed the story-lines of Gounod’s “Faust” and Berg’s “Wozzeck”. For further discussion, see: The Devil’s Details Part II: Thoughts on Gounod’s “Faust” .