Creepy and claustrophobic Wozzeck

In 1970 Rolf Liebermann took the assembled forces of the Hamburg State Opera down to a castle in South Germany and made a film of Berg’s Wozzeck.  The production is pretty literal.  It’s set in Austria in the late 19th century and everything plays out very literally per the libretto but it’s far from being a routine or dull reading.  A combination of brilliant conducting, slightly over the top acting, pointing up the Expressionist elements in the music and really good cinematography make this a very tense, creepy and claustrophobic experience.  It’s simultaneously rather repellent and hard to watch and deeply engaging. 

Central to the performance, as it must be, is Toni Blankenheim’s Wozzeck.  He’s quite restrained but oozes misery from every pore.  He is every bit the downtrodden Everyman and his accurate, if slightly dry, singing points this up nicely  Opposite him is Sena Jurinac as Marie.  She is almost manic and exudes hopelessness except when sheer animal lust seems to offer her a moment of release.  Her “lullaby” to her child is almost unbearable to watch.  She also sings very sweetly, never descending into sprechstimme or Wagnerian bellowing.  The other roles are also well played.  Richard Cassily is a powerfully sung Tambourmajor.  He’s a bit one dimensional but that’s the role rather than the player I think.  Hans Sotin is quite terrifying as the doctor and Gerhard Unger plays an appropriately ineffectual captain.  There are nicely sung cameos too from a sweet toned Peter Haage as Andres and Elisabeth Steiner as Margret.  Musically it’s all pulled together by a titanic reading of the score by Bruno Maderna.  He seems to find every nuance in the music and contributes greatly to the overall atmosphere of cloying doom.

I’m not absolutely sure where the division of labour lay between Liebermann, listed as Artistic Director and Joachim Hess who “directed for TV”.  In any event there is some really good cinematography.  Very effective use is made of atmospheric long shots, especially during the orchestral interludes, but mostly the singers are filmed in close up with the camera typically lingering for a long time on the same shot.  It really reinforces the creepiness and is far more effective than cutting to a new angle every two seconds.  It’s very fine work.

The disk package is pretty decent for a 1970 film for TV.  The picture is rather softly focussed 4:3 but not bad for the era.  The sound is mono but one would hardly know it.  It’s clear and atmospheric and does justice to the fine singing and playing.  There is some useful material on the history and impact of the work in the booklet but no extras to speak of on the disk.  There are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish subtitles.  This is well worth seeing especially for fans of films of operas.

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2 thoughts on “Creepy and claustrophobic Wozzeck

  1. Wow, I did not know about this recording at all. I’ve heard Blankenheim as Dr. Schön and Schigloch in Lulu but never as Wozzeck. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

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