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Recordings

Alban Berg: Wozzeck
28 Aug 2007

BERG: Wozzeck

Among the available DVDs of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, the recent release of the production Rolf Liebermann made into a film i the late 1960s stands out for various reasons.

Alban Berg: Wozzeck

Hans Sotin (Doctor), Richard Cassilly (Drum Major), Toni Blankenheim (Wozzeck), Sena Jurinac (Marie), Kurt Moll (Workman I), Gerhard Unger (Captain), Peter Haage (Andres), Franz Grundheber (Workman II), Kurt Marschner (Idio), Elisabeth Steiner (Margret), State Opera Chorus, Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Maderna, conductor.

Arthaus 101277 [DVD]

$29.98  Click to buy

At a time when filmed opera was, at best, rare, the producer took a risk in creating a cinematic version of the film. It was innovative at the time and remains one of the creative approaches not only to filming this work, but in presenting opera in this medium for broadcast not in the cinema, but on television.

The decision to make this leap is not without some forethought. In the notes that accompany this DVD Richard Eckstein quotes the producer’s comments about his perception of the antithesis between opera and television: “Whereas television is primarily interested in transmitting reality, opera is a highly stylized artform. How can the two be brought together successfully?” This rhetorical question is addressed in the resulting film, which is a thoughtful production of the opera through the medium of film, which, by its nature allows for the non-diegetic orchestral accompaniment that some criticize for its perceived intrusion into the dramatic action between the singers when opera is performed on stage.

In Liebermann’s hands, film succeeds as a vehicle for presenting this opera and the others he produced outside its conventional venue on stage. In doing so, Liebermann did not turn to feature films intended to be shown in the cinema, but created them for television. In doing so, he made opera accessible to a broad audience by bringing the artform into homes, where individuals — originally in Germany — could view excellent performances at home. Such efforts are remarkable for the wide-ranging effect that brought Wozzeck and other operas to individuals who might not have been able to see the productions of the Hamburg Opera on stage. More than that, Liebermann wisely chose to create films of the operas, instead of pursuing the customary tack of filming the operas as presented in the theater. In working with Joachim Hess on directing Berg’s work for television, a more intimate space than the cinema, Liebermann addressed the visual challenges creatively. In a sense, Liebermann and Hess accomplished for televised opera what Ingmar Bergman did with staged opera in his film of Mozart’s Zauberflöte.

Notwithstanding the merits of filming operas as they are presented on stage (something familiar to those who know the “Live from the Met” and “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcasts from New York City), the addition effort involved in creating cinematic productions deserves attention for the way in which they contribute to the operas themselves. When it comes to twentieth-century opera, which is sometimes unfairly criticized for the modernity implicit in its style and sometimes exacerbated in avant-garde staging, Liebermann’s films are particularly noteworthy. With Penderecki’s Die Teufel von Loudon, Liebermann presented a vision of the opera that is at once cinematically convincing and faithful to the composer’s score, and did the same Berg’s Wozzeck. In approaching Pederecki’s work, Liebermann used crosscuts and various cinematic techniques to bring out the modernist elements of the score. With Wozzeck, though, Liebermann contributed to the style of the work by using realistic settings for the work. The various out-of-doors scenes bring a sense of realism to Berg’s opera, putting into the world we know and, at the same time, suggests the naturalism that is associated with Berg’s source, Georg Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck. The details found in the film create a level of meaning that may be out of the bounds of staged opera, with the gritty, muddy streets of the town in which the action occurs or the steam emerging from the mouths of the characters when they are out of doors. That detail and other, related elements are part of the style of the film and contribute to its visual appeal.

At the same time Liebermann started with the excellent the remarkable casts that were part of the Hamburg Opera. The performers involved with this production had a command of the opera on stage and comfortable with their roles in the work. With such a fine cast coming from the Hamburg production of Wozzeck at the core of the film, Liebermann had a solid starting point. The situation is markedly different from some of the attempts to film musicals, where the actors who created the roles on stage may not be available for the version created for cinema. While it can work in some cases, filed musicals also suffer from casts that were assembled from the available stars, who did not always work out in their eventual roles on the screen. As unfortunate as this can be, Liebermann’s approach gave him an artistic edge that allowed difficult works like Penderecki’s Die Teufel von Loudon or Berg’s Wozzeck to emerge effectively in film because of the strong casts and solid productions involved.

Thus modern audiences who may associate Sena Jurinac with her creation of roles in operas by Mozart and Strauss have the opportunity to see her portrayal of Marie in this film. In approaching the role, her attention to the melodic line overshadows her coloring it with expressionist details. She brings to this role the musicianship that is part of her legacy. While some may not associate Jurinac with this role, those who know her successful portrayals of Mozart and Strauss roles should find a convincing Marie in this DVD.

Likewise, Toni Blankenheim is a singing actor in this film, with his depiction of Wozzeck convincing, including his facial gestures, his movements, and the glances into the scenery. His name may not emerge readily when it comes to studio recordings of the opera, but the film demonstrates his command of this challenging role. Other well-known singers are also part of the production, with the tenor Richard Cassilly offering a fine interpretation of the Drum Major. Cassilly plays that role in earnest, including that sometimes arch scene where Marie asks the Drum Major to march for her. Vocally and dramatically, Cassilly and rest of the cast work well is not only a convincing vocal presentation, but one that is compelling dramatically.

For various reasons this DVD has much to recommend. In addition to the fine performers, the production is a model of a successfully film treatment of an opera. From the stark bare tree that opens the film to the concluding images, the visual elements support the music and drama of this critical twentieth-century work.

James Zychowicz

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