first visit to the Palais Garnier in 1985 for Alceste, Michael Schønwandt has been regularly invited to conduct
the Paris Opera Orchestra, with whom, as he himself admits, he has “a very
strong bond”. After Janáček, Strauss and, in 2011, Berg’s Lulu,
current musical director of the National Opera–Orchestra of Montpellier is back
at the Opéra Bastille for a revival of Christoph Marthaler’s now classic
production of Wozzeck: an opportunity
for him to tell us about this fascinating and essential work, one that he
considers to be, not merely “a concert in fancy dress” but “true and profound
Wozzeck is a work that leaves no one indifferent. Do you remember the first time you heard it?
Michael Schønwandt: I started going to the opera in Copenhagen at the age
of six. Very quickly, my parents realised that something was going on between
the little boy that I was then and music. At eight, I had a season ticket that
allowed me to see performances three times a week; and naturally, two years
later, I knew the major part of the repertoire by heart. When I discovered Wozzeck, at the age of twelve or
thirteen, I didn’t understand everything, of course, but I was immediately
fascinated by its musical substance, - as concentrated as an atomic bomb. It
was a sound world hitherto unknown to me. Looking back, to a large extent, I
impute the shock I felt to the adult problems that were exposed by the drama.
It is always tempting to qualify Wozzeck as revolutionary. Berg, however, maintained that his work did not represent a rupture with musical history but rather a certain continuity.
How does one explain the lasting popularity of a work that is profoundly of its own time and often considered to be the last opera of the 20th century?
M.S.: Whilst Strauss immersed himself in a fantasy world,
Berg turned to a profoundly realistic form of theatre, with simple, human
characters. “Poor people, like us” says Wozzeck… One can’t help being touched
by the tangled relationships depicted by the libretto. It is a profoundly
expressionist work that marks Berg’s farewell to the culture and values of the
19th century, to which, nevertheless, he remained attached. For its
first performance in 1925, the conductor Erich Kleiber was allowed a hundred
and twenty-five rehearsals, whereas we are preparing this production in three
weeks! What I mean by that is that the work is now part of the repertoire.
Perhaps that’s why it might be seen as the last opera of the 20th
century. It is the last to have entered the pantheon of the great opera houses,
with the possible exception of the operas of Britten and Le Grand Macabre by Ligeti, the musical forms of which are in any
case close to those of Wozzeck. The
latter would not exist without the heritage of Berg.
Has your knowledge of the contemporary repertoire allowed you to understand and conduct Wozzeck differently?
M.S.: I don’t know if I conduct the work differently today…
But, in effect, one does perhaps understand Berg otherwise having worked on the
music that came after him. Although a knowledge of more recent musical forms is
in no way a prerequisite to apprehending Wozzeck.
The score is in itself extremely modern and could have been written in our own
time. Berg was, and still is, extremely influential, like Stravinsky who inspired
whole generations. Conducting Wozzeck surely
gains from being approached from both perspectives: keeping in mind the works
that followed and from the viewpoint of the tradition that influenced Berg.
It’s an extremely virtuoso score, as much for the orchestra as for the chorus
and the soloists.
What about the vocal writing in Wozzeck?
M.S.: Berg alternates three types of vocal writing, which
allow him to realise his dramaturgical aims. Thus there are spoken passages
with fixed rhythms, sung passages and sprechgesang,
which he borrowed from Schönberg’s Pierrot
Lunaire. This is something between singing and speaking in which the right
tone is particularly difficult to find. It is strongly linked to the text, to
which it confers a particular importance. This is essential for a libretto like
this one. In my eyes, Wozzeck is one
of the greatest theatrical texts ever written.
How do the music and the text fit together?
M.S.: The orchestra pit and the stage maintain a very tight
relationship that is sometimes conflictual. The orchestra may anticipate the
action on stage or introduce it with a phrase or a dramaturgical counterpoint
that contradicts what is being expressed by the singers. In Wozzeck, by the way, the orchestra is
three-fold: there is the one in the pit, one off stage and another on stage.
Berg enjoys superposing different kinds of music, which then become dramatic
elements. The genius of this work resides in its skilful musical construction
combined with a highly developed sense of theatre.
A theatrical sense that Christoph Marthaler’s production conveys particularly well … Are you familiar with the production?
M.S.: No, I have never seen it. On the other hand, I know
Christoph Marthaler very well and have invited him and his company several
times to Copenhagen. I really appreciate his work. I find him extremely
visionary, very musical and funny too. He often introduces unexpected
situations and a spark of craziness all his own … But then, I suppose we are
all a little bit crazy, aren’t we? (He laughs.)