On the face of it, Berg’s opera (based on Georg Büchner’s 1837 play, Woyzeck) is a straightforward story of a man who murders his unfaithful partner and dies, leaving an orphaned child. But there is far more at stake in both the play and the opera. Fragmentary and unfinished when Büchner died, the play’s episodic scenes, brutal realism and hallucinogenic moments for the Wozzeck character lent themselves to the mercurial musical style which Berg had developed.
Wozzeck is a simple soldier, barely articulate, yet troubled by visions. He lives a downtrodden life, brutalised by the military machine and oppressed by characters who are named and defined only by their roles: Captain, Doctor, Drum Major. While Wozzeck acts as batman to the Captain, the Doctor uses him as a lab-rat for experiments in nutrition; his wife Marie takes a shine to the glamorous Drum Major, but is guilt-ridden by her betrayal of Wozzeck’s simple trust and care.
The affair reaches the ears of Wozzeck, who has murderous visions, fights with the Drum Major and stabs Marie to death. Returning to the scene later, Wozzeck tries to dispose of the knife in a pond, and, frightened by the moon, drowns. This in many ways tawdry and filmic tale is given visceral energy by Berg’s score, which elicits sympathy for Wozzeck’s and Marie’s natural, flawed humanity by pitting uncomplicated melodies and speech-song against the relentless, motoric rhythms of militarism, scientific progress and the engines of the ship of state.
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