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Opera Noir: Alban Berg's 'Wozzeck'

It's difficult to compare Alban Berg's searing yet beautiful drama Wozzeck with just about any other opera, much less with other forms of dramatic entertainment. Yet there is one comparison that may be appropriate.

In the 1940s and '50s, a style of movie making developed that became known as film noir. It's a category that's still hard to define, even a half-century later, and has been used to describe a wide variety of films, from Sunset Boulevard and The Third Man, to more recent "neo-noirs" like David Lynch's Mullholland Drive and Roberto Rodriguez's Sin City.

The style, experts say, is heavily influenced by Expressionism, an artistic movement seen and heard in the art, literature, film and music of the first few decades of the 20th century. And while there's really no category of musical drama known as "opera noir," if there were such a designation, it would certainly apply to Berg's Wozzeck — an opera steeped in Expressionism.

Berg and his contemporaries Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern are among the best-known of the Expressionist composers, also known as the Second Viennese School. All three explored the 12-tone style of composition, and none of them has a reputation for music that's tuneful and easy to digest.

But if there's one of the three whose work has been more widely accepted by mainstream audiences than the others, it would be Berg. He mixed leading-edge musical techniques with traditional forms and tonal harmonies to create his own, highly emotive brand of expressionism. And he used it with stunning results in two operas — Wozzeck and his later drama Lulu.

Wozzeck is a rigorously structured opera, both dramatically and musically. Its three acts each have five scenes, separated by orchestral interludes, and every scene has its own, classically derived form. The second act is a kind of five-movement symphony, complete with a sonata form first movement and a scherzo with two trios. Berg also employs traditional tonality at a number of crucial moments: The climactic orchestral interlude between the final two scenes is solidly in the key of D minor. All of this, combined with a startling story based on an influential play by Georg Büchner, results in an opera that's complex, disturbing — and often deeply beautiful.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Wozzeck in a production from the historic Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The young American soprano Mardi Byers shines in the challenging role of Marie, alongside baritone Georg Nigl, whose emotional performance in the title role is a musical and dramatic tour de force.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.