Samantha Hickey and Andrea Fabi as puppeteers in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Wozzeck at the Sydney Opera House. 
Production photography by Keith Saunders

William Kentridge’s direction of Alban Berg’s opera WOZZECK which premiered in Salzburg last year was always going to be an anticipated highlight of this year’s Sydney Festival, where it is currently shown as a co-production of a number of opera companies including Opera Australia.

Whilst the work is referred to as an opera, it needs to be approached from a broader perspective, almost a culmination of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which music forms merely a part of the whole, and not necessarily the most important part.

The atonal thrust of the music, its sound collages, use of Sprechgesang and inclusion of some folk and popular song interludes, even a few flourishes into tonality, function very much like an early version of sampling and soundtrack techniques. This supports the themes of alienation, insanity, and nature’s arbitrariness and inherent violence with Berg himself adapting the libretto from fragments of Buechner’s ‘Woyzeck’, and further inspired by his WW1 experience.

Conductor Andreas Molino ensured that the Opera Australia Orchestra, the Opera Australia Chorus and a Children’s Chorus presented Berg’s 12 tone composition excellently and subtly controlled the few shifts into tonality.

The production was a seamless and absolutely thrilling interplay between all its components, from the inventive and disorienting stage set and design, to lighting, projections, costumes and choreography, even puppetry. To single out one key aspect only would be unfair to all the other production components as they all played their part and the totality would have been lessened had any one element been missing or not fully realised.

The interplay between lighting and projection established a dreamlike, nightmarish even, ambience that reflected Wozzeck, his environment and the insanity of both perfectly. A visually expressionistic miasma at times there were illuminated foci of utmost clarity throughout, such as the “cupboard” scene 4, between Wozzeck and an experimenting inhuman doctor, to pick just one. Subtle variations of lighting and the constant highly original projection techniques and displays along with incessant movements of participants, mostly in a semi lit background and not always immediately noticeable induced a trancelike experience of this post-apocalyptic potpourri.

I must also mention a few additional aspects that added to the overall success of this production. The use of a puppet for Wozzeck and Marie’s child was very effective, and the spotlighting created a nice interplay between clarity and nebulous confusion, not just for Wozzeck but the audience as well. And the decision not to have an intermission ensured that the flow of the production was not compromised.

WOZZECK was recently reconfirmed by BBC Music magazine as one of the most important musical landmarks of the last 100 years, and productions like this will ensure that it will remain so for the next 100 years as well. Utterly riveting and highly recommended.

WOZZECK  will be performed next on Wednesday, 30th January and throughout the first two weeks of February until 15th  February, 2019 in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

Featured image-John Longmuir as The Captain, Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck and Richard Anderson as The Doctor in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Wozzeck at the Sydney Opera House. Photo credit: Keith Saunders