Woyzeck, Georg Büchner’s social tragedy about the total lack of prospects for poor, exploited people and the mercilessness of military life, found the ideal composer to set it to music in Alban Berg. The composer had seen the Vienna premiere of the drama in 1914, was immediately fascinated and started composing an opera based on Büchner’s text. His interest in setting the work was heightened by his own experiences of war, though he did not finish the opera until 1922. Using atonality and elements of twelve-tone technique Berg found haunting sounds that vividly evoke visions of death, jealousy, inner distress and hopelessness. Despite considerable opposition, the premiere took place in Berlin in 1925 under Erich Kleiber – and straight away established the opera as a progressive masterpiece. In 2004, Eberhard Kloke adapted the work for 38 musicians, and this version is excellently suited to the intimacy of the Theater an der Wien. Kloke did not change a single note of Berg’s; instead, he tightened the wind section and removed the filling-in instruments. This leaner orchestration enables the soloists to modify their singing to a style closer to acting and produces an even more gripping portrayal of Büchner’s main protagonist who is completely at the mercy of social injustices.
The simple soldier Wozzeck is poor, uneducated and has an illegitimate child with the beautiful Marie whom he loves very much. To make some money he has volunteered as a guinea pig in an experiment run by the doctor: he is permitted to eat only pulses. His captain criticises his morals on account of his illegitimate child. Wozzeck protests that his poverty is to blame. As times goes by, Wozzeck becomes increasingly peculiar: he is plagued by menacing visions of the world’s end, violence and death. Marie falls for the charms of the handsome Drum Major. When Wozzeck learns of this and watches her dancing with the Drum Major, his visions become overpowering. He provokes his rival and a fight breaks out. In the end, Wozzeck stabs Marie to death during an evening stroll. Trying to wash off her blood in a pond, he drowns.