Tassis Christoyannis gives a shattering performance as Wozzeck
Review: Wozzeck at Greek National Opera11:10, 2nd March 2020
Wozzeck – Berg
Greek National Opera
As the director Olivier Py pointed out in the February issue of Opera Now, Wozzeck is not an opera to enjoy, but to disturb. Yet perversely, at its Athens premiere, I found myself actually enjoying it, and still I can’t fully work out why.
One reason was that Py’s production eschewed the gory approach that German directors usually gloat in and focused instead on the real and everyday plight of the common man, which happens all around us, often unobserved under a veil of fragile normality, until something snaps and all hell lets loose.
This impression of poor yet just about functioning normality was enhanced by the revolving set by Pierre-André Weitz, which allowed us to glimpse simultaneously several apartments in a white, spartan modern building, and see several of the characters going about their daily business. A black-and-white, more than 7m-high cube placed centre stage, made of over two tons of timber, it revolved full circle, noiselessly, to serve as background for all the opera’s scenes, from the barracks to Marie’s house, to the lake where Wozzeck drowns. The costumes were also ‘normal’ rather than over-shabby glad-rags as is often the case.
Another reason for the production’s success was the superb playing of the GNO’s orchestra under one of Greece’s top conductors, Vassilis Christopoulos, who is based mostly in Germany and who had also worked wonders here a year ago in Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. We heard superbly subtle and nuanced playing that highlighted the rare yet very present lyricism in Berg’s score, while holding nothing back in the explosive crescendo in the climax of the drama.
The casting was equally inspired. Tassis Christoyannis, fresh from his triumph as Rodrigo in Don Carlos was a sad, grey yet frighteningly ‘normal’ man, dressed in suit and tie, whom one would never suspect of being capable of committing an act of violence, despite his shatteringly realistic acting of Wozzeck’s hallucinations. His warm, mellow baritone timbre added an achingly realistic element to his longing for the happiness that eludes him only because of his poverty: a towering portrayal that will haunt the memory for years to come.
Equally moving was the portrayal of Marie by the German soprano Nadine Lehner. Her voice has a velvety middle range that enabled her to sing all of Marie’s music, including the high notes, without ever screeching (oh what rare joy!) and make the lyrical moments emerge as actually enjoyable. At the same time, her slender frame and fragile yet sensuous beauty (long, straight dark hair and piercing green eyes), rendered the misery of being poor even more acute. I had never before thought of how much more miserable it must for a pretty woman to be poor until the scene where Marie was given the glittering pair of earrings by the Drum Major (admirably sung and acted by Peter Wedd), and her expression signified the full realisation of the chasm between her present circumstances and what could be… It brought tears to my eyes. Lehner is a real find (an ideal Lulu, for a start), and one hopes that opera managements will take notice.
All the other roles were equally well cast: Peter Hoare’s Captain, less brutal than usual yet just as crushing, was impressive; and Vassilis Kavayas (whom Opera Now singled out in its new talent for 2020 list), delivered a vocally exceptional portrayal of Wozzeck’s friend, Andres. Yanni Yanissis was a particularly chilling Doctor, obtusely insensitive rather than inherently cruel.
What seemed particularly incredible to me was that after a few days, I wanted to see this superb production again!