BERG: Wozzeck

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 producerís
comments about his perception of the antithesis between opera and television:
ìWhereas television is primarily interested in transmitting reality, opera
is a highly stylized artform. How can the two be brought together
successfully?î 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 Liebermannís 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 ó originally in Germany ó 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 Bergís 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

Notwithstanding the merits of filming operas as they are presented on
stage (something familiar to those who know the ìLive from the Metî 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, Liebermannís films are particularly noteworthy. With
Pendereckiís Die Teufel von Loudon, Liebermann presented a vision
of the opera that is at once cinematically convincing and faithful to the
composerís score, and did the same Bergís Wozzeck. In
approaching Pedereckiís 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 Bergís opera, putting into the world we know and, at
the same time, suggests the naturalism that is associated with Bergís
source, Georg B¸chnerís 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, Liebermannís approach gave him an
artistic edge that allowed difficult works like Pendereckiís Die Teufel
von Loudon
or Bergís 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

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

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

image_description=Alban Berg: Wozzeck
product_title=Alban Berg: Wozzeck
product_by=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.
product_id=Arthaus 101277 [DVD]