Alban Berg
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York

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Peter Mattei (Wozzeck) Credit: Ken Howard
Wozzeck Credit: Ken Howard
Elza van den Heever (Marie) Credit: Ken Howard

Georg Büchner wrote Woyzeck just before he died of typhoid in 1837, aged 24. It is often thought of as the first modern play and forerunner of the social dramas of the 19th century.

There is no definitive text. The script, based on a real-life murder case, was found in fragments among his papers, not published until 1879 and not acted until 1913.

Woyzeck is a human being on the lowest rung of the ladder who is tormented, degraded and goaded past endurance. He finally snaps and murders his unfaithful, common-law wife.

This brutal and radical work, cruel and deeply upsetting, is both a realistic and an expressionistic indictment of the way society treats people and the insane in particular.

There have been many adaptations, most notably by Werner Herzog in his 1978 film with a brilliant performance by Klaus Kinski and a German expressionistic production by Robert Wilson to music by Tom Waites at the Barbican in 2000.

Wozzeck, Alban Berg’s 1925 opera, is a milestone in opera. The abrasive score, inspired by the horrors of World War I, has tremendous power and is an overwhelming experience, challenging orchestra, singers and audience alike. This revival, conducted by Yannick Nezet-Sequin and starring Peter Mattei, opened at The Metropolitan New York in January this year.

Every time you see Mattei in close-up, he has the perfect face for the role; but for the most part he is a tiny figure, lost in William Kentridge’s production. The image is of a man lugging chairs around and walking on duckboards through chaos.

Mattei is almost completely upstaged by Sabine Theunissen’s vast and ugly set and the huge and flickering projections of old newsreels, jerky cartoons, charcoal and ink drawings and war maps. The set is a mountain of debris of a war zone, a bombed city. What we see on stage is the mental aberration of a nation traumatized by World War I. It’s an abyss to make you dizzy.

It’s a dark world; so dark, it makes Wozzeck want to hang himself.

But he isn’t the only one who is crazy. The whole world has gone mad. Everybody is wearing gas masks. Christian Van Horn’s Doctor, Christopher Ventris’s Drum-Major and Gerhard Siegel’s Captain are splendid caricatures which outgross Grosz. The only real person is Wozzeck’s unfaithful wife (Elza van den Heever) who tries to take comfort from the Bible and the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.

The opera lasts just 91 minutes. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the music and the singing and by the production, the set and the projections.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch