--The Policeman, from the final scene of the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner.
Visit here for the Superconductor review of Wozzeck at the Met.
The Captain (left) consults with the Doctor (right) against a blood-red moon in Wozzeck.
Photo by Ken Howard. © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera
Alban Berg served in the Austrian army, on the losing side of World War I. That experience inspired the composer to set Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck, an intense, dramatic story inspired by a real murder. Both play and opera follow the story of a soldier driven mad by his condescending Captain and tortured by his Doctor. He goes mad and stabs his common-law wife. (But don't ask why Berg changed the spelling.)
Wozzeck is a three-act opera, but the Met presents it as one, intense, 90-minute experience. The short scenes are constructed along formal guidelines. The first act takes the form of a baroque suite. The second, a short symphony. The third, with the murder and the subsequent death of Wozzeck, is a series of inventions, on a theme, a rhythm, a chord, and a note. Berg's music may sound chaotic at first listen, but by understanding the formal structure and almost Bach-like technique used to write the ioera, one gains a deeper appreciation for this dark, twisted opera.
Recommending a recording of Wozzeck is like finding a good dentist. The experience of a first listen may not be pleasurable, but it will pay off in the long run. Here's the best available:
Orchester den Deutsche Oper Berlin cond. Karl Böhm (DG, 1965)
Wozzeck: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Marie: Evelyn Lear
The Captain: Gerhard Stolze
The Doctor: Kurt Bohme.
The second-ever commercial recording of Wozzeck. Skilfully conducted by Karl Böhm, this set features the great lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau doing his impression of a knife-wielding maniac. His victim: the underrated soprano Evelyn Lear. All releases of this production come paired with a truncated, two-act version of Lulu from 1968.
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Claudio Abbado (DG, 1987)
Wozzeck: Franz Grundheber
Marie: Hildegard Behrens
The Captain: Heinz Zednik
The Doctor: Aage Haugland
This live recording (made in 1988) of the opera suffers from a surfeit of stage noise. But it also features the compelling Marie of Ms. Behrens, and the Viennese forces who play this difficult music with love and care. This Wozzeck is also available on the eight-disc DG box set The Alban Berg Collection along with Lulu and pretty much everything else in Berg's sparse catalogue.
Staatskapelle Berlin cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec, 1996)
Wozzeck: Franz Grundheber
Marie: Waltraud Meier
The Captain: Graham Clarke
The Doctor: Gunther von Kannen
Herr Grundheber's second shot at Wozzeck (everyone was making records back then) benefits from the chemistry generated in the pit by Daniel Barenboim. This is a live recording made in 1994. The pianist turned conductor leads a sumptuos performance of this spiky score. Waltraud Meier's Marie is also present here, caught in the German soprano's prime.