Deutsche Oper Am Rhein, Düsseldorf
By Dan Phillips - 25 October, 2017

The best part of my job as a director of theatre is I get to travel around working in wonderful locations with equally wonderful people. At the moment I am back in Germany directing a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' which means for the next few months I have access to the mythical Germany theatre. The UK is always made very aware of Germany’s heavily subsidised theatre policy and with a theatre on every corner, Germany has always been lauded for its appreciation of the performing arts. On my last job here in April I was lucky enough to see a production of 'Arsenic and Old Lace' at a theatre that produces purely in northern Germany’s archaic dialect which, outside of the theatre walls, is hardly spoken any more. This time, I managed to see a new production of Alban Berg’s 'Wozzeck' at Düsseldorf Opera House.

'Wozzeck' is a fascinating piece of opera, being famously a spelling error adaptation of the acclaimed play by Georg Buchner, 'Woyzeck', which itself recent received a large scale revival at The Old Vic in London. First produced in 1925 in Berlin, this German opera explored form and style, breaking many boundaries and leading the way in the avent-garde movement of the early 20th century.

Here in Düsseldorf we are presented by Stefen Herheim’s new production which takes the original backdrop and places 'Wozzeck' on modern day death row. Christopher Hetzer’s set and costume design creates a sterile room with Wozzeck’s literal deathbed by lethal injection and viewing room from which people stare through the stage into the audience. On the evening of Wozzeck’s death as punishment for the murder of Marie, the liquids begin to make their way into his blood stream, but at 7pm the clock stops and Wozzeck is sent into a vision of the previous few days that led to this moment. This is a wonderful device, not traditionally part of the piece, that offers lots of dramatic scope. Firstly, it allows Wozzeck to become an observer on the events, almost a purgatory as he relives his downfall over and over until ready to be judged and secondly, by taking place entirely within this room, with the aid of projection, the claustrophobia of Maria’s social world and guilt is able to be heightened. The piece works to present Herheim’s obsession with crime and punishment and the flaws within our legal system, leading to a dramatic climax far removed from Berg’s original. Instead of using the children to highlight the fleeting nature of life and the mark we leave behind, he uses them to show us the next generation of death row murders unless something is drastically changed. The concept, although sometimes a little convoluted and sometimes a little on the nose, offered a visually fresh and exciting new take.

Next, let's visit the music. Under the expert hand of Axel Kober, the Düsseldorf Symphonic Orchestra tackles Berg’s relentless score wonderfully. This is not a ‘starter opera’! The atonal sound works to create the chaos within both Marie and Wozzeck's mind and whilst completely immersing you in the world, you will not leave humming a tune. Although an opera for a small cast predominantly, rarely offering choral singing, when those moments of the chorus are utilised the sound in the auditorium is ghostly.

Taking the titular role is Bo Skovhus, a regular at Düsseldorf, who offers a huge presence on stage, his shaved head, bulging biceps and menacingly wide smile painting a clear picture of a jealously fuelled madman. Marie, played by Camilla Nylund, has a slightly harder job being thrown around by men and rarely left alone to portray the vulnerability of the guilt-driven young woman she should be. Her aria in act three where she sits with her child, reading the bible and desperately prays to God to forgive her, usually a heartbreaking number, is here rushed through with focus on Wozzeck taking away all empathy towards his broken lover.

An interesting device used is to keep bringing up the house lights and breaking out of the confines of the set, shattering the fourth wall and reminding us, in Brechtian form, that this is a comment on society that we should be thinking about, making us remember that the brutality witnessed on stage is in fact a reality for many.

Although not quite perfect, this production certainly takes this near century-old opera and brings it crashing into 2017 in an energetic and provocative way.

Written by Alban Berg
Directed by Stefen Herheim
Musical Direction by Axel Kober