Berg’s WOZZECK

Event:Berg’s WOZZECK
Date:January 11, 2020, 12:55 pm
Run Time:1 hours 57 minutes
Ticket Info:Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for WOZZECKper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for WOZZECKper student • $11.00 online

Synopsis

ACT I

The soldier Wozzeck is shaving the Captain. The officer urges him to work more slowly, then tells him that he is a good man but lacks morality because he has an illegitimate child. Wozzeck replies that virtue is a luxury not meant for the poor.

Wozzeck and a fellow soldier, Andres, are cutting firewood in the fields. Wozzeck is frightened by visions: he hears noises and imagines the sinking sun as a fire setting the earth aflame. Then suddenly all is quiet.

Marie, the mother of Wozzeck’s child, and her neighbor Margret watch a military band pass by outside their window. Marie admires the handsome Drum Major and Margret mocks her. Alone with her young son, Marie sings him a lullaby. Wozzeck arrives and tells her about his visions, which he sees as an omen of evil things to come. Marie tries to comfort him, but he rushes off to the barracks without looking at his son. Overwhelmed by her own fears, Marie runs out of the room, leaving the child.

Wozzeck visits the Doctor, who pays him for use in his pseudo-scientific research. Full of self-delusion about making a grand scientific discovery, the Doctor asks Wozzeck about his diet. Wozzeck again brings up his visions, which the doctor dismisses as mere imagination.

On the street before her door, the Drum Major makes advances toward Marie.

She resists at first, then gives in to him.

ACT II

Marie is admiring the earrings the Drum Major has given her. When Wozzeck enters, she tries to hide them, then claims she found them in the street. Wozzeck is suspicious. He gives her the money he has earned and leaves. Marie is overwhelmed by remorse.

The Captain and the Doctor meet in the street and talk morbidly of sickness and death. When Wozzeck passes by, they taunt him with allusions to Marie’s infidelity. Shocked, Wozzeck asks them not to make fun of the one thing in the world that is his. Then he rushes off.

Wozzeck confronts Marie with his suspicions and tries to force her to confess. He

is about to hit her but she remains defiant, telling him that she’d rather have a knife in her belly than his hand on her.

Two drunken apprentices amuse the crowd in a beer garden. Wozzeck enters and sees Marie and the Drum Major on the dance floor. A fool approaches Wozzeck and tells him he smells blood. Wozzeck has a vision of people waltzing while covered with blood.

The same evening in the barracks, Wozzeck wakes to nightmarish memories of what happened in the beer garden. The Drum Major enters, drunk, and boasts about his conquest. The two men fight and Wozzeck is knocked down.

ACT III

Alone with her child, Marie reads from the Bible, first about the adulteress who was forgiven, then about Mary Magdalene. She begs God for mercy. 

Marie and Wozzeck are walking together near a pond. Marie wants to hurry back to town, but Wozzeck makes her sit with him. He kisses her and makes ironic remarks about her fidelity. When she attempts to escape, he draws a knife and kills her.

Wozzeck is drinking in a tavern, shouting wildly, and dancing with Margret. When she notices blood on his arm, he is unable to explain where it has come from and rushes out.

At the pond, Wozzeck searches for the knife and throws it into the water. Suddenly he imagines that the moon will reveal his crime. He wades farther into the water to hide the knife in a safer place and to wash the blood off his hands. The Doctor and Captain, passing by, hear him drown.

Neighbor children playing in the street tell Marie’s son that his mother is dead. He does not understand and keeps singing and playing.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

In 1821 a soldier, Johann Christian Woyzeck of Leipzig, murdered his mistress Christiane Woost in a fit of jealousy. He was convicted and publicly beheaded. In 1836 Georg Büchner began writing a play based on this incident. It was left incomplete and in fragmentary form when he died a year later, age 24. In 1879 it was finally edited and published as Wozzeck, a misreading of Büchner’s barely legible handwriting, and first produced in Munich in 1913. Alban Berg saw a production in Vienna in 1914 and immediately decided to make an opera of the play. He chose 15 of its 21 scenes, organized them into three acts of five scenes each, and crafted his own libretto. He finished it in 1922. It was premiered in Berlin in 1925 and created a scandal, but was so frequently staged that Berg could actually live off the royalties until the Nazis banned it in 1933 as “decadent art.”

Berg himself was a soldier during World War I and experienced firsthand the tedium, craziness, and brutality of military life. It’s a grim story, though not without flashes of humor, like the caricatures by Georg Grosz of life in the Weimar Republic. Wozzeck is surrounded by grotesques: the Doctor, the Captain, the Drum Major. The sympathetic characters are his genial but uncomprehending friend Andres, his mistress Marie, and her young child.

The symmetrical organization is part of a meticulous level of craft unique in the history of opera. Instead of basing the work on conventional vocal forms — arias, recitatives, etc. — Berg used instrumental forms. Scenes in Act I are constructed as a suite, a rhapsody, a military march, a passacaglia, and a rondo. Act II is a symphony in five movements. Each scene in Act III is an “invention” — on a theme, a single note, a rhythm, etc. Berg didn’t expect listeners to pay attention to this technical stuff; it was a frame on which to build the music. Instead, he wanted the audience to be immersed in the story. He succeeded. 

One reason he felt the need for this frame was Wozzeck’s musical language. It’s the first “atonal” opera — that is, not based on traditional triadic harmony. This is “free atonality,” not “twelve-tone” writing, and does not puritanically shrink from what we normally think of as consonance. It creates an atmosphere of unease, menace, melancholy, and dark humor. The kaleidoscopic scoring calls for huge orchestra with quadruple winds. The vocal writing sometimes uses “Sprechstimme,” not quite singing and not quite talking. There are easily recognizable recurring Leitmotifs. The music reaches out and grabs you.

Most critics and musicologists consider Wozzeck the greatest opera of the twentieth century. What is it about? In its compact ninety minutes — shorter even than La Boheme — we are confronted with a powerful indictment of the oppressiveness, violence, and economic inequality of modern society. Wozzeck himself is eloquent in his inarticulateness. For me, his defining line is “Wir arme Leut’ ” — “We poor people.” Unfortunately, this is an opera for our time.

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