Review / Magnificent execution of Berg’s emotional opera

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John Longmuir as The Captain, Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck and Richard Anderson as The Doctor. Photo: Keith Saunders

ALBAN Berg’s formidable opera “Wozzeck” opened to rapturous applause at the Opera House on the weekend.

Based on a real life story dramatised by 19th century German playwright Georg Buchner as “Woyzeck”, this version is considered one of the most significant operas of the 20th century, both in the bravura atonality of the music and in its exploration of humankind in the modern world as Man, but almost Beast.

Berg pulled the philosophical essence out of Buchner’s play and turned it into an intense, demanding work, now co-directed by Luc de Wit and artist William Kentridge in a collaboration by Opera Australia, The Metropolitan Opera, Salzburg Festival and the Canadian Opera Company.

It’s based on a simple enough tale – a soldier struggles to support his common-law wife Marie and their little boy. To make ends meet, he shaves his captain and agrees to be the guinea pig in a psychological experiment by a sinister doctor, a forerunner of death-camp experimenters in the 20th century. When Marie hops into bed with a well-built drum major, the captain and doctor waste no time in ridiculing the cuckolded, disturbed Wozzeck, who retaliates in the most violent possible way.

Lorina Gore as Marie and Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck. Photo: Keith Saunders

Attention will inevitably focus on the dazzling visual effects, but equally important are the formidable vocal and acting talents of several Opera Australia regulars, Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck, Lorina Gore as Marie, John Longmuir as The Captain and Richard Anderson as The Doctor. Incidentally, both Gore and Anderson are graduates of Canberra’s (now the ANU’s) School of Music.

This is not easy material and all the principals excelled in performing music which, though occasionally lyrical, often seems completely detached from that of the orchestra, which was sensitively conducted by Andrea Molina.

The visual effects eclipse last year’s sensational laser-decorated “Aida”. It is not the first time photographic and artistic images are overlaid on a basic multi-level set, but here designer Sabine Theunissen cuts the history of Western art into the conventions of German Expressionistic theatre and film.

Samantha Hickey and Andrea Fabi as puppeteers. Photo: Keith Saunders

A village drinking festival looks as if it stepped out of the paintings of Brueghel the Younger. The gas-masked figures of Weimar artist Otto Dix predominate and Kentridge’s own famous sketches of Wozzeck’s head (the real life Woyzeck was beheaded) are projected on upstage screens, where they join imagery of automata-like human beings, articulated horses and explosions. The child of Marie and Wozzeck is represented by a puppet manipulated on stage to create a shattering last scene.

The effects are often painterly – bold slashes of white paint signpost important aspects of the story. References to World War I become even clearer as the murder scene is set before a large map with the town of Ypres clearly marked.

“Wozzeck” was magnificent in execution, but apart from the five identifiable central characters, it was hard to make out who was who in the huge cast. And instead of going by in the flash of an eye, the 100-minute performance seem to last for hours.

Opera Australia has done magnificently in bringing Berg’s emotionally exhausting opera to the Australian stage, but it’s not a production that I’d would want to visit often.

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