Thursday, July 3, 2008

Liceu Does Wozzeck: Bieito Gets it Right!

It's the day after, and I'm still reeling from watching Bad Boy Bieito's production of Wozzeck from the Liceu. This release, will - to be sure - anger as many as it will entice, but rarely - if ever - have I seen an opera updated to better effect with the resulting music drama as perfect as a stage work can get.

This production - as typical with this director - has divided audiences probably more than any other work he's done. While many of the ideas I've heard for his productions of Seraglio, Butterfly, etc., have repulsed me and seem like cheap effects for shock value, watching this Wozzeck was like watching something new. Somehow - and with a minimum of conceited directorial shoehorning, Berg's masterpiece fits this new scenario as though there were no other way to perform it. The score's otherworldliness matches the visual components given here in a futuristic, almost sci-fi manner that feels perfectly natural. It's astonishing, really.

Bieito's cast is uniformly strong - top-to-bottom. Franz Hawalta's title character not only embodies the awkwardness of Berg's anti-hero, he embraces it, convincing one he may be the only sane and still human person in this tale. Where Alan Held last year destroyed me by his pitiable Wozzeck who felt like an outsider in an unusually cruel world, Hawalta's Wozzeck is an outsider - someone hanging on to the last vestiges of his humanity in a post-apocalyptic world where there is no hope.

The stage design is simply mindboggling (well, not so much "simply"). The endless labyrinth of pipes and pipe heads, is here, "the belly of the beast." There is steam, liquids, gunk and filth pouring, breathing, filling the stage, yet somehow, there is also beauty.

The Wozzecks seem to live in an enormous corrugated metal container, or box car which descends from the flies, it's harsh, inhuman florescent lights washing out nearly all color and hope. When we witness first the home's descending, it features Wozzeck watering a small green garden and the imagery, the symbolic nurturing of his garden in this hopeless place was so beautiful and meaningful so as to nearly stop my heart. It is an image I will never forget.

Nearly everyone in the cast is in identical orange, work jumpsuits, everyone covered in grime, women with hair clipped short, Wozzeck and Marie's child, a sickly, bald, bruised waif, forced to wear an oxygen mask at all times, the tanks strapped to his weak, failing back. It is a heartbreaking vision, and the child is onstage for much of the opera, his symbolism cannot be missed, yet never once feels forced or false. The Doctor, Drum Major, Captain and Fool are the only ones given different costumes, for obvious and well thought out theatrical reasons.

Ms. Denoke does not go for the sympathy vote with her unique take on Marie. This Marie is a feisty, slightly opportunistic factory worker: a little cold, a little less thoughtful and refined in her thinking and thus a little less pitiable. The bible-reading scene then becomes the embodiment of Marie's great catharsis; a dramatic realization which becomes, here, an epiphany of the horror of her plight - everything, becoming somehow, for the first time, real. Wozzeck, having been brutally beaten, and humiliated by the other men, lies before the house at the beginning of the scene, with Marie wondering where he's been for two days. It completely changes this intent of this scene from every other production I know. When she jumps from the house, she's clutching the oversized bible, and begins tearing it violently to shreds, before seeing Wozzeck's bloody, broken body which has been there the entire time.

While there is nudity, Bieito's use of it here is restrained. For most of the opera, the only nudity is that of corpses which the Doctor dissects, and seems far too interested in both carnally and clinically. One of the most arresting and disturbingly beautiful images occurs during the final interlude as nearly the entire company appear - all nude, and slowly - walking in barely discernable steps, toward the stage apron, as what appear to be disinfectant perhaps showers of purification rain down upon them. The effect and its meaning completely overwhelmed me and thinking of it now . . . well, I'm writing this shaking my head in near disbelief. It is not at all a provocative or sensual image, but the beauty of it - the perfect matching to the music's mood seems haunted by genius.

Everything about this Wozzeck is new, alarming and ultimately powerful. Wozzeck's early interactions with Andres have a naturalness about them convinces these once were good friends. It was a joy to see David Kuebler, a singer I've always liked, giving such a strong presence to an almost thankless role.

Reiner Goldberg - a singer I've always been divided on (and who has got to be getting on in years) is marvelous as the Drum Major in his Elvisy-glitz and gold hair.

Vivian Tierney as Margret, Johann Tilli as the Doctor, and the diminutive Hubert Delamboye as the Captain all offer well thought out and vivid portrayals of these roles.

No Wozzeck, of course, cannot work without the score being as well played and sung as possible and the German maestro, Sebastian Weigle, seems to have spent his life with this score. The delicacy of certain sections are as beautiful and illuminating as any performance or recording I've ever heard. He emphasizes as well as the best, the dance rhythms of Berg's amazingly diverse score. As delicate and chamberlike as some of the score is, the moments of bombast are, here, as devastating as they can ever be. Combined with the images of Bieito's dazzling and harrowing production, the effect is as total - and new - as a Wozzeck can be. The playing and singing from the Liceu forces really is about as good as it gets.

The sound engineering of this product is astonishing, at the right volume level, everything is caught as cleanly and as clearly as one would experience in a great opera house (though, necessarily and, of course, without that live spatiality).

There is an interesting 18 minute documentary offering insights into Wozzeck, including Bieito's take on the story, and Maestro Weigle's pocketbook analysis of the score.

This DVD jumps to the top of my favorites pile and I look forward to being destroyed on many repeated viewings

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