William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck is a strange, intoxicating feast for the eye that tips you into a nightmarish world warped by war and by Wozzeck’s paranoid delusions. It feels as if you have been sucked into a noirish painting or animation. As the opera progresses, it increasingly seems like you are seeing things through the central character’s fracturing mind.

Wozzeck, Opera AustraliaMichael Honeyman (centre) with John Longmuir and Richard Anderson. Photograph © Keith Saunders

Berg wrote the opera (first performed in 1925) between 1914 and 1922, basing it on Georg Büchner’s unfinished 1836 play Woyzeck. In 1915, Berg was sent to fight with an Austrian army and his own experiences on the frontline had an impact when he returned to complete the opera. Writing to his wife in 1918, he said that the character of Wozzeck was partly based on himself: “I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact, humiliated.”

Berg uses 15 short scenes taken from the 27 in Büchner’s play, and sets them to a complex, atonal score in a tight, three-act opera that runs one hour and 40 minutes. The story centres on a troubled army private, Wozzeck, who is so poor that he takes on extra work, like shaving The Captain and undertaking experiments for The Doctor – who at this point has him only eating beans – to earn enough to feed his girlfriend Marie and their young son. Bullied and humiliated by his condescending, buffoonish superiors, and already suffering hallucinations and paranoia, Wozzeck is tipped over the edge when he discovers that Marie is having a fling with The Drum-Major. He slits her throat, then, in a delusional state, kills himself.

Kentridge’s visually staggering production, which premiered in Salzburg in 2017, is a co-production between Opera Australia, Salzburg Festival, The Metropolitan Opera and The Canadian Opera Company. He created it with his regular team of collaborators: co-director Luc de Wit, set designer Sabine Theunissen, costume designer Greta Goiris, lighting designer Urs Schönebaum and projection designer Catherine Meyburgh.

Wozzeck, Opera AustraliaOpera Australia’s Wozzeck. Photo © Keith Saunders

The production is staged on a ramshackle conglomeration of stairs, ramps, platforms, chairs and a precarious looking building with a giant wardrobe, which sits on what looks like the edge of a battlefield. The set is bathed in ever-changing projections, largely featuring charcoal drawings by Kentridge (a signature style of the artist) but also other types of drawing and specially filmed footage. Images of haunted faces, mechanical looking horses, severed heads in gas masks, crashing planes, searchlights, a blasted landscape with burnt out trees, a map of the battlefield at Ypres, decadent dancers at a party and, at the end, a series of explosions animate the set so that it is constantly morphing.

Crew members dressed as nurses and wearing gas masks, lurk in and under the set, making stylised appearances to move pieces of furniture and props. There are wonderful scenic moments, such as when the wardrobe opens to reveal a comical doctor’s surgery, and later musicians performing at the tavern. Overall the striking visuals are visceral, intriguing, ominous, and richly satisfying.

Goiris uses bold shapes and carefully chosen colours to highlight the costumes against the busy background – The Drum-Major’s white uniform, Wozzeck’s somewhat sickly green outfit, and Marie’s red dress, for example – with plenty of detailing, from the feathers on The Captain’s helmet to the saggy, fawn underwear for Marie and Margret.

The production begins with Wozzeck (Michael Honeyman) showing a jittery film on a small screen to the impatient, self-regarding Captain (John Longmuir). Wozzeck already has a slightly crazed look, which will only intensify as the opera drives towards its tragic conclusion.

Wozzeck, Opera AustraliaMichael Honeyman and Richard Anderson. Photo © Keith Saunders

The strong cast do a fine job of handling the challenging score, which requires the singers to sing in various modes and also speak. Sporting short ginger hair, and an emptiness in his wide blue eyes, Honeyman taps into Wozzeck’s growing mania, bringing a haunting quality to his beautiful baritone, which becomes increasingly heartfelt and emotional as life batters and brutalises the downtrodden character.

Lorina Gore’s Marie is clearly frustrated at Wozzeck’s distractedness and very happy to receive the attention of The Drum-Major. She may briefly feel guilty at her infidelity but not enough to stop her dancing with him, holding onto his belt as she leans backwards in a seductive set of moves. Gore sings the role with a sensual lyricism, her lullaby a moment of sudden, surprising beauty, and she doesn’t hold back in unleashing Marie’s angry, manic high notes with a thrilling ferocity.

John Longmuir is excellent as The Captain, bringing a dashing dynamism to the pompous character, whose self-regard is matched by the ridiculous plumage on his helmet. He sings with great clarity and drama, and his piercing falsetto notes have a suitably madcap quality. Richard Anderson captures the cartoonish malevolence of The Doctor, John Daszak exudes a brassy confidence as the cocky Drum-Major, and Dominica Matthews is very funny as the brash Margret. There is also some glorious singing from the chorus.

Wozzeck, Opera AustraliaLorina Gore and the puppet as her child. Photograph © Keith Saunders

Kentridge offers a cogent reason for using a puppet rather than a (distracting) real child for Wozzeck and Marie’s son, but the puppet is a grotesque creation with a gas mask and is hard to engage with, so the scenes in which it features lose some of their empathy and emotional power.

Occasionally the stylised staging feels overwhelming, and some key moments are lost in the visual melée. The end of the opera, in particular, doesn’t have the emotional impact you’d expect. Wozzeck’s murder of Marie seems rather perfunctory, staged as it is on a ramp half way up the stage, and doesn’t shock or truly disturb. Wozzeck’s own suicide also feels underplayed. Slipping off the stage, Honeyman disappears under the stage – just as the supernumeraries have frequently done – and the impact of his death is somewhat lost.

As for the ending, which should be both heartbreaking and chilling, as Marie and Wozzeck’s child is left alone, oblivious to the fact that both his parents are dead, despite the taunts from the other children, I wasn’t moved (though if you related to the puppet, you might feel differently).

Nonetheless, it’s a stunning visual take on the opera that leaves you with image after striking image pounding through your brain. Musically, the production is also a thrilling, if challenging ride, with the orchestra rising to the occasion under the baton of the superb Andrea Molino who unites both the disturbing dissonance and moments of lush beauty in a powerful reading of the complex, unsettling score.

Wozzeck plays at the Sydney Opera House until February 15


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