A moving black and white montage of stark moving imagery populates our visual field from beginning to end. Whether it’s disembodied heads, ever bleak storm cloudscapes bleeding into wood skeletons that emerge onto the stage as a ramshackle boardwalk cluttered with broken furniture, or the dramatic stopwatch or torture instruments being used by the aptly named Dr. Coffin Nail, (Christian Van Horn) it is classic William Kentridge. One might think of it as what Goya paints when his Prozac prescription ends, and he discovers a darker shade of black to use in his art. Were it not for the expert cinematography by the Metropolitan Opera, this writer fears she would scarcely hear the music or follow the story, because the Kentridge touch is so hypnotic and all encompassing.
The title character, sung by baritone Peter Mattei, is an impoverished soldier, who from the gitgo sings of the wretchedness of poverty. There is no bottom to the indignities he suffers at the hands of his oppressors. The only bright light in his life is a prostitute with whom he has a child, Marie sung by Elza van den Heever. Her two-timing betrayal of Wozzeck is what drives him to both murder and suicide. Dark, dark, dark—there is not one minute of this opera or staging that even remotely suggests for a millisecond the hope of a happy ending.
Complex music changes form with each scene – fifteen en toto , over the course of no-intermission 90-minutes. The cameras zoom in on the performers’ facial expressions. The expansive set frames the actions in small corners. When the score BLASTS a dramatic moment, a projection fast falls to the floor at equal rapid speed. In this reviewer’s opinion, there are few opera performances, ever, that have so tightly choreographed the visuals with the score.
Though the score was largely composed by Alban Berg before World War I, the production seems saturated with a Dada sensibility born of that conflagration’s chemical warfare slaughters. Every time we see Wozzeck and Marie’s son—a puppet whose face is a haunting gas mask derivative—we are reminded of this. Gas masks also clutter the set, which has a remarkable similarity to one created by a far lower budget theater in Chicago recently performing ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.
But Kentridge seems to take this a step further, so that we can better break beyond WWI sensibilities to today. A solo and duet interplay between bass-baritone Van Horn and baritone Matthei in a cutaway medical exam room seems to shout DR MENGELE. We don’t know what that flugelhorn stethoscope used by the doctor is exactly, but we do know that we are seeing an invention born to sate an appetite for sadists.
We meet Kentridge, who directs this opera, along with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in a discussion about WOZZECK with the Met Opera’s director and initiator of their HD broadcasts, Peter Gelb. It amazes to consider that it was only last December when this showcase of class oppression was staged. Audiences at the opening might have been thinking of children in cages. An HD broadcast viewer today will likely be reminded of the mindset that sends workers into COVID-19 infested meat packing plants without personal protection.
Visit the ALL ARTS website, produced by NY public television Channel 13, for more information on their wide assortment of arts programming.
• Peter Mattei – Wozzeck
• Elza van den Heever – Marie
• Tamara Mumford – Margret
• Christian Van Horn – The Doctor
• Christopher Ventris – The Drum-Major
• Gerhard Siegel– The Captain
• Yannick Nézet-Séguin – Conductor
• Eric Owens – Host
Run time: 2 hours
• Yannick Nézet-Séguin – Conductor
• Gary Halvorson – Director
• William Kentridge – Production
• Luc De Wit – Co-Director
• Catherine Meyburgh – Projection Designer
• Sabine Theunissen – Set Designer
• Greata Goiris – Costume Designer
Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
About the Author: Amy Munice
Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.
Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.