Gurlitt’s Wozzeck in Bremerhaven

What Leoncavallo faced when Puccini also composed an opera on Murger’s Vie de Bohème was also Manfred Gurlitt’s lot when he decided, at the same time as Berg, to produce an operatic version of Büchner’s Woyzeck. It is unlikely that either composer knew of the other’s work, the first performances being only four months apart. Gurlitt, who also wrote operas to Zola’s Nana and Lenz’s Soldaten, has faded into obscurity, partly because his music does not fall into any easily definable category, partly because he joined the Nazi party. In fact he was later expelled from this organisation when it was discovered that his grandmother was Jewish and he spent the rest of his life exiled in Japan. It was courageous of the Bremerhaven company to mount the “other” Wozzeck and it was, by no means, a wasted effort. The predominantly tonal music is less sharp in its characterisation than Berg’s; more a restrained commentary on the plight of Wozzeck than the latter’s bitter onslaught on the society responsible for his condition. But it was effective for all that and gripped its listeners for its short duration of 80 minutes.

In the title role, the Italian Filippo Bettoschi impressed with his forceful, to my ears Germanic, performance, as did Inga-Britt Andersson as Marie – surely a Wagnerian soprano in the making. The other parts were all well taken and Marc Niemann in the pit proved to be a worthy advocate for the score. I was less convinced by Robert Lehmeier’s production. Having all the characters and chorus on stage throughout – in a sort of community centre – observing the action was distracting and added little to the drama. Why are Germans so afraid of abstract settings?