The common approach to video recordings of Berg's opera, as taken in this version's principal DVD rivals (Abbado/Dresen, Vienna '87; Levine/Lamos at the Met in '01), is to cut from the stage to the orchestra pit for the orchestral interludes separating the opera's many short scenes. In those rival versions, Claudio Abbado and James Levine have visual presences as strong as those of the principal singers. Do not expect to see Daniel Barenboim even at the beginning and end of this live performance taped in April 1994 at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin. Stage director Patrice Chéreau's production unfolds very much as a live performance would -- our eyes never leave the stage. Singers sometimes are left on stage to act emotional states suggested by the orchestral interludes, or we get a fade to blackness and an eventual fade-in, or we see stage machinery repositioning itself, the furnishings of a home or the abstract outlines of a town gliding into place. There is no intrusive curtain falling and rising to pull us from the spell. The vision and the mood of a 100-minute nightmare are seamlessly sustained.
Chéreau's work here has his usual hallmarks: the suggestion of a very close and sympathetic collaboration with the singing actors, a fresh study of and engagement with the text, numerous striking stage pictures, and an idiosyncratic response to explicit stage directions, which sometimes are disregarded. In the very first scene, Wozzeck is not shaving the Captain (both are upright, with the Captain prancing and leaping about a good deal); in the second scene, Andres and Wozzeck are sweeping floors rather than gathering wood. In the latter case, I cannot see the gain or the reasoning. One kind of menial task has been exchanged for another, but the one in the libretto made better sense, as Wozzeck's visions in that scene are decidedly of an outdoor nature. More often, though, the leeway Chéreau allows pays dividends, both for him and for his excellent cast, and this is evident in close comparison with two other video performances, one seven years earlier and one seven years later, with cast overlap.
Franz Grundheber here sounds grayer and more frayed than he had for Abbado in Vienna seven years earlier, but there is more danger in the interpretation. The Wozzeck of the earliest scenes is less together, more harried and tightly coiled, dark circles under his eyes, a little disheveled. In the early scenes of the Abbado performance, one feels for Wozzeck; in the same scenes of this one, one does that but also fears for everyone around him. A valid counterargument would be that the opera plays better if we believe Wozzeck has further to descend into madness, but I find the baritone's earlier performance bland and generalized in comparison to the present one. The brilliant character tenor Graham Clark, elsewhere on video unforgettable as Bégearss (THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES), Loge and Mime (DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN), gets at what is both repellent and blackly comic about the Captain. For Levine at the Met seven years later, he would be a trifle more restrained, more orthodox, in cooperation with a production that reflects those qualities. Here he is a demented dervish, taking advantage of every bit of rope Chéreau allows him -- it's a wicked, athletic, and caustic turn.
Several hundred words could be devoted to Waltraud Meier's Marie alone; it is a devastating portrayal, and the most valuable attribute of a generally valuable disc. Amid the mountains of opera DVDs and, before them, VHS tapes and laser discs, there are those special occasions when the right singer, role, production, time, place, and colleagues came together and we were privileged with a souvenir of what will be remembered as a legendary portrayal after the singer has left the stage. Prior to seeing this, I would have said that Kundry was the German mezzo/sometimes-soprano's greatest role, but now I would put her Marie on the same level. As ever, Meier has a highly expressive face and moves with the discipline and control of a trained dancer. There is not a moment she is on stage that is not carefully considered and deeply felt, and not a moment I was conscious of watching famous opera singer Waltraud Meier. She is Marie to the life, but a very particular and specific Marie all her own: attractive, sensuous, anxious, mercurial, gripped by premonition of her doom. She figures in some of Chéreau's most beautiful stage pictures, and I will not soon forget her in the Bible scene, in a bright red dress and bare feet, lit by a single candle, kneeling to read an oversized book on the floor. When she finally lifts the book, it seems to weigh her down more than comfort her. Meier sounds her best as well. Sometimes she has suffered from being miscast (Eboli, Carmen), and sometimes she has undertaken higher-lying roles in which her success depended on dramatic insights, artistry of phrasing, and sheer will (Isolde, Leonore). Here, she sings securely and beautifully and is a pleasure to hear.
The supporting cast (Andres, the Doctor, the Drum Major, Margret) is without weak link, and the Second Handwerksbursche is Roman Trekel, who has gone on to sing major baritone roles, notably those of Wagner. The mute role of Wozzeck and Marie's illegitimate son is played by a boy older than the ones in the Abbado and Levine performances, perhaps too old and tall for the character as specified, but this allows him to be more responsive to direction and to give-and-take with his stage mother, more convincingly an inhabitant of the play's world.
Daniel Barenboim's musical leadership is less elegant and, to my ear, less complete and masterful in its grasp of this score's shadings and possibilities than Claudio Abbado's. At the other pole, it does not have quite the accumulated force and the savagery (where called for) of Levine's at the Met. Of the three, it is the middle-ground choice. All three have first-rate orchestras, and the wind playing of Barenboim's Staatskapelle Berlin has hypnotic allure. There is no bad performance under discussion here; all have their boasting points. I would recommend the Vienna for Abbado's conducting above all, and it is a shame that it is the least well recorded of the trio, and that the orchestra suffers the brunt of the burden for it. Hildegard Behrens acts Marie almost as well as Meier does (her weary, drooping whore is a valid alternative to the vitality and beauty of Meier's), but Meier's singing is more accurate and focused. The Chéreau/Barenboim is first in most ways: the most engrossing stage production, the best video direction, the best combination of singing and acting in the role of Marie, the best overall cast, and the best translation in the subtitles. Mark Lamos's production for the Met, conducted by Levine, returns to the classic lines of realizing Berg's opera in visual terms, albeit with more economy than the realistic production of Adolf Dresen with Abbado. Major pluses here are (again) Clark's Captain and Levine's forceful, punchy reading. At the Met, Katarina Dalayman sings Marie's music more beautifully than Behrens or Meier, being endowed with a rounder and healthier tone, but she is less detailed dramatically than either of her predecessors; the character does not emerge in such crisp focus. If I have one objection applying to all three performances, it is that neither Grundheber (Abbado and Barenboim) nor Falk Struckmann (Levine) can realize the poetry of the title character, which is there bundled up with the madness, brutality, and ruin. I wish one of these performances had preserved the Wozzeck of José van Dam, in my opinion our great Wozzeck of modern times.
But my first choice remains easy: The Chéreau/Barenboim is one of the essential video recordings of any 20th-century opera.
AVAILABILITY NOTE: At the time of this writing, the summer of 2012, this DVD seems only to be available from UK and European sellers. I obtained my copy via Amazon from a third-party seller based in Austria. The copy I received is, happily, region coded 0 for worldwide playability, picture format NTSC 4:3.