NEW YORK — Even Alban Berg was shocked by the success of his opera “Wozzeck” at its 1925 Berlin premiere.
The opera after all was written mostly in a freely atonal style, the kind of music that literally set off a riot in a concert hall just 12 years earlier. More deeply still, its blending of dramatic realism and musical expressionism made “Wozzeck” a radically visionary work — you know, the kind that is supposed to be understood at first only by a select few. Berg’s revered teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, had himself once declared: “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” And so Berg walked the Berlin streets late into the night while his own student, Theodor Adorno, consoled the master on the calamity of his success.
Given that the intervening century has done nothing to dull the edges of this coruscating opera about a poor soldier driven to insanity, murder, and suicide by the heedless cruelty of the society around him, we may indeed still wonder how did “Wozzeck” succeed from the outset, swiftly entering the bloodstream of 20th-century music and finding a place in the repertoire more solid than any other work of operatic modernism? What is the secret of its spell?
Audiences have the opportunity to consider these questions anew thanks to a provocative, visually engrossing production that has recently arrived at the Metropolitan Opera, directed by the South African artist William Kentridge and conducted by the Met’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The staging can be experienced live at the Met through Jan. 22, but Boston audiences can also catch the new “Wozzeck” in several local cinemas on Jan. 11, when the matinee performance will be simulcast to movie theaters around the world.
Berg based his opera on Georg Büchner’s play “Woyzeck,” left unfinished at the writer’s death in 1837. That work’s fragmentary narrative, its emotional intensities and attention to psychic states, and its eerily prescient visions of a world ablaze seemed to contain a message directed toward an unknown future, one that hit Berg like a lightning flash when he attended the play’s belated 1914 Viennese premiere and resolved immediately to set the work to music.
Rather stunningly — or perhaps by virtue of that mystical process through which works of art act as a kind of relay station in the history of human suffering — Berg, composing between the years of 1914 and 1921, somehow created a work illuminating not Büchner’s world but his own. One century later, this Kentridge production aptly makes that temporal slippage transparent by updating the opera’s setting explicitly to the eve of World War I. The quiet implication is that Berg’s own opera, like the Büchner tale it carried forward, has its search lights correspondingly trained toward the very future we now inhabit. And it is clear that Berg’s score — glowing, dissonant, furiously humane — can still reach the receptive listener today as forcefully as Büchner’s play conquered the composer in 1914.
Kentridge of course is no stranger to Berg’s operatic world, having staged “Lulu” at the Met in 2015. His “Wozzeck” is similarly immersive in visual terms, with the stage awash in projected images and animations. Yet this newer production benefits from being more disciplined, less diffuse, than its predecessor. The aggressive black-ink stylings of “Lulu” have given way to a more somber charcoal palette used to limn ruined landscapes and charred battlefields out of which images of the dead slowly drift into focus and then recede into the blur, ghosts from the future haunting a past whose fate is preordained. A giant military map at one point dominates the stage, suggesting the history of warfare inscribed in the land. Most unsettling of all is the son of Wozzeck and his common law wife, Marie. Typically played by a child, the boy is here represented on stage only by a puppet wearing a gas mask, a lamb plainly being raised for the slaughter.
Yet all is not what it might have been. Where the production falters is in the limits of its expressive range. Deeper layers of Berg’s characters — even of the boy, or what he represents — are left unplumbed amid the gas masks and scarred battlefields. Kentridge’s sets too — an assembly of wooden staircases, floors sloped at odd angles, and narrow ramps over which the singers clamber — seem to complicate rather than clarify Berg’s surging drama of the interior.
The cast nonetheless turns in largely compelling performances. In the title role, the distinguished Swedish baritone Peter Mattei has deeply internalized the plight of this poor hallucinatory soldier — tormented by his commanding officer (an imperious Gerhard Siegel), experimented on by the cruel army doctor (a darkly suave Christian Van Horn), emasculated by the sadistic drum major (Christopher Ventris), and immiserated by a society utterly indifferent to his fate. At the performance I attended on Jan. 2, Mattei wore Wozzeck’s sorrow and loneliness like a skin, and with his elegant vocalism projected the character’s tragic dignity all the way until the end, when Wozzeck is reduced to murdering Marie (a coolly anguished Elza van den Heever), and then drowning himself in a lake.
In any good performance of “Wozzeck,” however, it is the orchestra that is the real star. The music works on many levels, depicting the action, the scenic setting, and the characters’ inner lives. After the terrors of Act III, Berg’s score pulls back to comment on the events from an observer’s perspective, and it is a viewpoint of extraordinary compassion. The music eventually finds tonal mooring around the key of D-minor, the key of Mozart’s Requiem, and Berg delivers a condensed Requiem all his own, with the motif associated with Wozzeck’s line “Poor folk like us” intended to thunder from the brass. Throughout the night, Nézet-Séguin drew eminently lucid playing from the Met Orchestra, but his account still felt like it was searching for the molten core of this score’s profundity and power.
Even so, the music’s sense of deep compassion finds a way to reach the surface of any decent performance. “The power of empathy,” Adorno later wrote, “is more all-embracing in ‘Wozzeck’ than perhaps ever before experienced in opera.” In this sense, as faithful as Berg might have been to the 19th-century play, “Wozzeck” nonetheless transmutes the meaning of Büchner’s drama by rescuing the humanity of its characters again and again. This is what its first war-haunted audiences must have intuitively grasped in 1925. Theorists of art have sometimes imagined that the spark of hope recovered in works like this could itself become a resource, preserving the possibility of a society’s eventual change. For now, though, “Wozzeck” experienced in 2020 illuminates a far starker reality. We watch the opera, to borrow an image from Kafka, like spectators frozen in place as the train passes by.
William Kentridge’s production will be simulcast to select local theaters on Jan. 11 (and screened a second time on Jan. 15). Live performances at the Metropolitan Opera continue through Jan. 22. www.metopera.org.