Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cadavers on stage: Bieito's Wozzeck in Madrid

I managed to crash the opening night of Calixto Bieito`s production of Berg´s Wozzeck at the Teatro Real in Madrid last Friday. This was the premiere of this production in the Spanish capital, first seen in Barcelona´s Gran Teatre del Liceu last season. The Spanish Royals were not in attendance, but the Teatro could have used the extra security that evening. I have never in my life witnessed such vociferous booing, feet stomping and whistle calls during curtains, not even when soccer player David Beckham got canned at the Real Madrid. But, I think even the booers at Teatro Real realized what we had just seen something quite extraordinary.

Yes, there were some gruesome, very disturbing scenes as expected, particularly having to do with the doctors experiments: he rubs a naked male cadaver, as if preparing to perform a liposuction. Later, he does the same to a female cadaver, and proceeds to lick her body parts, all the while having his casual exchanges with Franz. There are also bloody fights, vomiting, and religious sacrilege (Marie, as she prays to the bible, rips it to shreds and throws the pieces around the stage). At one time, there were so many naked people on stage, you´d think you were participating in a Stephen Tunick installation.

Calixto denies that he tries to become the protagonist of every opera he directs -- of course, I don´t believe it. But I also think in that, in this case at least, it is a very theatrically effective, coherent production. This is not Madama Butterfly, or Ballo in Maschera, operas bathed in tradition and belcanto splendor. Berg´s score lends itself to this sort of edge, with its disjointed scenes stiched together by a score of claustrophobic rumbles, cacophonous alienation, culminating in visceral, psychotic expostulations. This also worked because the performances were simply UNBELIEVABLE, an entire cast of stupendous singing actors! As Marie, Angela Denoke was fabulosa, singing with the hair-raising intensity of a Hildegard Berehns but also with a gorgeous voice. Wozzeck was amazing as well, a guy I never heard of before called Jochen Schmeckenbecher. The necrophiliac doctor was Johann Till and the Drum Major was Jon Villars. Except for Bieito, everyone was warmly applauded.

I was of course prepared for controversy, violence and nudity. What I was not prepared for was what a visually stunning production this was. Predominantly black, gray and red, this Wozzeck is set in a petroleum refinery, with a maze of tubes (think roof of Centre Pompidou) leading nowhere in particular. Wozzeck and the other soldiers become refinery workers, the Drum Major an Elvis impersonator.

The booing was very loud and demonstrative, even for warm blooded Madrileños. I can´t say that I entirely understand the psychology of the audience, but I suspect some of the were boing is because they know that booing is what Calixto wants, and they are just obediently showing the chosen form of praise in Calixto´s universe.

© 2007 C. Chang

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