As a rather stale opera season approaches its end, few exciting new productions have swept Europe. Paris and London, however, both featured important revivals worthy of note for their innovative casting choices. The Paris Opéra, about to welcome Anna Netrebko in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin before launching a raft of summer productions, is also presenting a respectable run of one of the twentieth century’s defining works, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. First performed in 1925, Berg’s opera is an adaptation of the German playwright Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1837), a work left unfinished and fragmented at the time of the author’s death of typhus at age twenty-three. Büchner’s early demise, however, did not keep him out of the pantheon of German literary heroes. As a revival of his writings later in the nineteenth century and the 1923 creation of the Georg Büchner Prize—now Germany’s top literary award—demonstrate, he certainly struck a chord.
His legacy still does. Büchner, who closely followed the utopian socialists preceding Karl Marx, made searing points about the neuroses that arise from the antagonisms inherent in skewed social relations. Wozzeck, to use Berg’s version of the name for the pathetic protagonist, is a poor solider who must support his amour Marie and their out-of-wedlock child. His meager pay is insufficient, so he earns extra income by performing valet services for his captain and participating in the regimental doctor’s medical experiments. His degradation, combined with Marie’s insatiable sensuality, leads to her attraction to a handsome drum major, who bests Wozzeck in a bar fight and drives him to murder his faithless mistress in a fit of jealousy. Wozzeck’s guilt sends him to a watery grave as he searches for the knife he used to kill Marie. In the end, their uncomprehending child is left to the mockery of his peers.
The deranged plot is not difficult to imagine in the pages or on the screens of today’s yellow press, which loves to report on the failed lives of the sick and sad. Christoph Marthaler’s production premiered in 2008, the year of the most recent world financial crisis, and the trappings are modern enough. Here the story is updated to a bleak present, with the action confined to a tent in the courtyard of a vast brick building that has no apparent exits. Rows of picnic tables suggest one of those indoor beer gardens visible anywhere between Metz and St. Petersburg. The military atmosphere is suggested by the watered-down uniforms of contemporary Euro-armies, with Marie and the other dependent civilians attired a level or two above street people. Cheerless accoutrements like fading balloons, a rusting playground, and a slide that inclines through an oversized clown’s mouth (into which Wozzeck disposes of Marie’s corpse) suggest ancillary family life. This Wozzeck is thus a thoroughly contemporary drama unfolding somewhere in the widening crevices of a decayed European welfare state.
The production comes most alive, however, not in the traditional Brechtian/Marxist reading—which holds that Wozzeck is the traumatized product of a corrupt and abusive society—but rather in the more holistic Romantic tradition that democratically extends neurotic victimization to all of society’s members. Here the captain and doctor—voiced by the nervously pinched tenor of Stephan Rügamer and the still powerful bass of the veteran singer Kurt Rydl—are just as bonkers as their victim. Indeed, the alienation and atomization are so pervasive that one wonders whether they even realize or care that they are just as easily victimized by the same system that destroys Wozzeck’s psyche. The accomplished baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle left little doubt about the extent of his character’s problems. The title part’s vocal line is one of the most formidable challenges in the repertoire, but Kränzle moved through it with stunning agility. As his Marie, the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin delivered a glittering performance, easily having eliminated the unfortunate edginess that marred her performance as Richard Strauss’s Salome when she performed the work with the Vienna State Opera in a 2014 concert at Carnegie Hall. Here she was powerful without giving in to stridency, incisive without becoming shrill. The rising tenor Štefan Margita, rapidly becoming the reigning Loge in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, rounded out the cast with a well-voiced but suitably obnoxious Drum Major. Under the baton of the splendid conductor Michael Schønwandt, the Paris Opera Orchestra gave a precise and at times even hair-raising reading of the score.
More thrills were on display in London, where Giuseppe Verdi’s monumental Don Carlo—conceived as a French grand opera in five acts and (at least originally) with a ballet—returned on May 12 in a revival of Sir Nicholas Hytner’s production. Shared with the Metropolitan Opera, it opened to mixed reviews in London in 2008 and New York two years later. Rather than fall for Iberian sumptuousness, the sets are stylized to accommodate rapid scene changes. Sometimes this approach works—simple walls with rows of open windows suggest the characters’ entrapment in an existence defined by strictures and expectations that they cannot escape. But just as often it is hard to take. The flexibility that Hytner may have thought an asset gives us tombs that almost comically slide in and out, garden barriers that evoke Legos, and other visual absurdities that detract from the drama. Happily, this revival eliminated the original production’s weirdest feature—a completely invented speaking role for a Dominican priest who calls on the heretics in the auto-da-fé scene to repent before angrily condemning them to the flames. Originally, this intrusion blotted out the stirring orchestral music that instills sympathy for the Inquisition’s victims, but now the character is refreshingly just a mute affectation. Gone, too, is the actual burning of the heretics, which used to happen behind a massive translucent image of Christ’s face. Now the Jesus image remains opaque as the brutal act happens out of sight behind it. I was of two minds about the change. On the one hand, one does want to see the scene’s bloody manifestation in all its horror, as the anticlerical Verdi intended. On the other hand, the mixture of religious imagery with a cruel act committed in Christ’s name always did seem gratuitously preachy.
Casting rose to a high standard, but was, alas, not free of trouble. Both soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and baritone Ludovic Tézier, cast as Elizabeth and Rodrigo, respectively, dropped out of the revival as opening night approached. Fortunately, this was not the fate of the rising star tenor Bryan Hymel, arguably the finest tenore di forza singing today, who made his role debut as Don Carlo. Ardent in the title character’s feeling and desperate in his struggle against cruel fate, Hymel’s brilliant, ringing tone recalled the heartiest singing of the late Franco Corelli. Slated for the part of Henri (Arrigo) in the French version of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani this fall, his is a talent to watch and a voice to savor. Kristin Lewis replaced Stoyanova and did a credible job as Elizabeth, Don Carlo’s betrothed who must then marry his old father, King Phillip II. The voice has a bloom recognizable from her singing in Italian theaters, but the top notes tended to waver in their full deployment. The same was true of German baritone Christoph Pohl, who sang the role of Carlo’s best friend but ultimate betrayer Rodrigo—a noble middle register and solid low notes did not presage the exciting highs that a true Verdi baritone can produce.
The remaining cast is tasked with tormenting the heroes, and for the most part they reached monstrous heights of power and intimidation. The role of Phillip II went to the still rather young Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov. Anyone singing the part today will fall under the inevitable shadow of comparison to the great Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Abdrazakov could not, alas, equal him in scare power. His real strength lay in the character’s unexpected vulnerability. Availing himself of a truly baritonal vocal line, he delivered the seminal aria of masculine despair, “Ella giammai m’amò”—Phillip’s recognition that his wife never loved him, with affecting pathos. Paired with the much scarier bass of the veteran Georgian singer Paata Burchuladze, the subsequent and deeply meaningful confrontation between throne and altar resounded as well as any in the opera’s recorded performance history. Mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk put striking power into the role of the king’s mistress Princess Eboli, who, to make the opera even more complicated, also loves Don Carlo and moves the plot along by revealing his love for Elizabeth when he spurns her. Semenchuk has been around for a while, but her warm, burnished voice only seems to become more powerful as time goes on.
Covent Garden’s orchestra is not among the best for Verdi’s challenging scores, but Betrand de Billy led it credibly enough to support the mostly superior talent he commanded on stage.