Dmitri Tcherniakov is a brilliant young artist—just approaching his 44th birthday—who designs his own sets & costumes as well as directing his singers. The DVD I just watched of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck was a co-pro. between the Bolshoi Theatre & Bel Air Media, who captured the 2010 production. Tcherniakov seems to be everywhere right now. His Don Giovanni comes to Toronto next season, while his Prince Igor will be broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera in a high definition broadcast this Saturday March 1st .
Tcherniakov’s Wozzeck does many of the same things we see in his Don Giovanni or in the videos I saw of Il trovatore and Ruslan und Ludmilla.
- What we get is a kind of gloss or commentary on the work presented, as though the director were probing deeply into the work in search of its fundamental meaning
- The production is worth seeing multiple times because of the density of meanings
- Performers never look better than when singing for Tcherniakov, who motivates them as no one else
This Wozzeck is a fusion of stage & video. Powerful as it is on TV at home, I also wish I could see it in a theatre, where its effect would be different again.
Before the work begins we see 12 roughly square urban living spaces –apartments?—on the stage, not unlike Hollywood Squares…. We’ve also seen a grid in Lepage’s Damnation de Faust and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach stage picture.
Each room is populated, some with televisions. But it’s a silent tableau. The orchestra tunes, then we narrow in on fewer and fewer until only one such space is visible, the others concealed (likely by curtains).
The last square shows us the fellow we saw in the credits who plays Wozzeck, at a table with a boy & his mom. Then they close this final square.
Conductor Teodor Currentzis –who seems to be much younger than Tcherniakov, even if he’s much taller –arrives. And we begin.
Each scene is prefaced by a synopsis in titles, and during the scenes, translations are projected.
As with Tcherniakov’s Trovatore or Don Giovanni the characters seem to take on roles, as though the opera were an occasion for role-play. And so while we begin with urban adults and children, they put on clothing and take on roles, taking us to different realities. Sometimes the blatant and tragic events of the opera acquire ironic distance as a result. Other times the role-playing is more poignant than ever.
In the first scene, for example, Wozzeck begins as a very passive man, ostentatiously putting on a ball and chain while submitting to the Captain’s harangue. But near the end of the scene, in a sequence that’s something like an aria, beginning “wir arme leut”, the passive man suddenly acquires such rage, masked behind that placid front that the Captain is totally surprised, as was I come to think of it. I know this work inside out, yet Tcherniakov kept surprising me with new ways to present something familiar.
By taking the scene with Andres –set in a field, in the score—indoors, into a tavern, we’re now in a public place where simultaneously we can normalize the behaviours, and then –when Wozzeck begins to rave—immediately calibrate them as madness. By displacing a scene from its usual place, Tcherniakov makes it brand new, and often frames it in a new way, even as the music continues to work in the usual way. In this production especially, I think we get to have our cake and eat it too. We don’t get the usual sentimentality in the moments where Marie seeks solace –in her lullaby—or possible absolution—when singing passages from the Bible, but instead something wholly unpredictable.
I don’t want to give it all away, except to say that once you get past the slight differences –such as having a boy who’s a bit older than what you might expect—one discovers that yes it can work.
Georg Nigl is a brilliant Wozzeck, with a gentler voice than I’ve ever heard in the role. Mardi Byers is the most remarkable Marie I’ve ever seen, a full-figured sex symbol, vulnerable and abused. For the rest, I’d say they are much like every other Captain or Doctor or Drum-major I’ve ever seen, all marvellous in various ways, but not so very different from what we usually get in those roles.
Conductor Currentzis makes the opera sound brand new to me, sometimes taking tempi I’ve never heard before.
The scene with the doctor in the first act begins faster than I have ever heard. There are a few other places where he goes very fast such as the tavern scene after Marie’s murder. But he can also find great delicacy & soul in this wonderful Bolshoi orchestra such as in that elegiac interlude before the last scene.
And Tcherniakov’s also coming to your movie theatre Saturday.