A Triumphant Wozzeck Performance at Covent Garden

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 31.10.2013 (MB)


Wozzeck ROH Photo (c) Ashmore
Wozzeck ROH Photo (c) Ashmore

Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Wozzeck – Simon Keenlyside
Andres – John Easterlin
Marie – KaritaMattila
Child – Sebastian Wright
Margret – Allison Cook
Doctor – Sir John Tomlinson
Drum Major – EndrikWottrich
First Apprentice – Jeremy White
Second Apprentice – Grant Doyle
Idiot – Robin Tritschler
Keith Warner (director)
StefanosLazaridis (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Rick Fisher (lighting)


Rankings may well be stupid, pointless, pernicious, yet any performance of Wozzeck which has not reminded one that it is the greatest of all post-Wagnerian operas has failed. This most certainly did not fail; indeed, it triumphantly succeeded. Moreover, this revival of Keith Warner’s Royal Opera production offered a fascinatingly complementary experience to that of ENO’s Carrie Cracknell staging, seen earlier this year. Whereas the latter restored with a vengeance the social protest and condemnation often mystifyingly absent from stagings of Berg’s opera, Warner concentrates upon more expressionistic, existentialist, experimental matters.Part of me was tempted to wish that both had heeded the other a little more, but another voice inside me cautioned that, as Schoenberg observed, only the middle road does not lead to Rome. It is far better to have a focused, committed, if necessarily partial interpretation than one that drops the excess number of balls it would juggle.  (Not that multivalent operatic staging is impossible. We have only to look at the work of Stefan Herheim – imagine a Wozzeckfrom him! – to appreciate that.)

Perhaps the most strongly abiding memory of Warner’s production and the late Stefanos Lazaridis’s designs is that of the Doctor’s experimental laboratory. We are reminded less of social degradation – though that of course is present in the action, by no means slighted – than of Das Cabinet des Dr Cagliari. The Doctor’s weird fascination in experimentation and curiosity takes upon itself the role of that productive, sadistic, deadly perversion inherent in instrumental reason known to us since Adorno and Horkheimer as the dialectic of enlightenment. (It reaches back to Homer in their book, and now inescapably does so in any non-naïve appreciation of the Western tradition.) Wozzeck ends up in the Doctor’s tank rather than in a lake as such, yet he most likely imagines the latter, and it certainly fulfils the exclamation and/or (scientific) observation, ‘Das Wasseristblut.’ Modern liberals shy away from, perhaps even stand in ignorance of, Nietzsche, but we do well to heed his warnings against the claims of the natural sciences, if only so as more fully to appreciate the real, as opposed to imagined, benefits they have brought us.

The unequal division of the stage, most of it devoted to that cabinet of malevolent grotesquerie, a corner sliced off at the front for Marie’s dwelling serves a dramatic as well as practical end. Marie and her child are hemmed in, on the verge of being expelled beyond the stage: there be dragons? They are invaded too, not least by the raucous, post- and sub-Mahlerian music of the local band. What at first seems as though it makes little sense visually comes to do so, but one needs patience and one’s critical faculties to ensure that it does. There is loss: the brutality and brutalisation of war and barracks life, indeed that of late capitalism in a broader, more depraved sense, does not register as it might, as it did in Cracknell’s production. But we do not have to choose. The final scene is, or should be, controversial, Wozzeck’s child freeing himself from the bed where he has witnessed all manner of sordid misery to move towards the tank, haunted by amplified children’s voices, presumably in his head. It is perhaps a step too far away from the societal underpinning of the work, and the amplification is clumsy, whether deliberately so or otherwise. Yet even that has one think.

As so often, the conductor, in this case Sir Mark Elder, took a little while fully to get into his stride. The first act, though pristine, precise, pellucid, did not quite cohere as it might have done – and maybe will in subsequent performances. Yet the rest of the performance incorporated those virtues into a reading that drove the action forward as proper music-drama and yet also highlighted to an extent I cannot previously recall the true miracle of Berg’s closed forms. Whatever the composer might have claimed regarding our not needing to hear them in the theatre, to do so in conjunction with the tragic dramatic thrust, the tension between them heightening rather than detracting from, the drama only opens up possibilities, both reflecting and yet also, in Adornian fashion, criticising the dialectic of enlightenment. Occasional orchestral slips notwithstanding, this was a committed performance from the orchestra, at times as ravishingly beautiful as a fine account of Schoenberg’s op.16 Orchestral Pieces, with great, though never exaggerated, dramatic punchwhere it was required.

Simon Keenlyside follows in the footsteps of Matthias Goerne as a great Wozzeck. (It is interesting to note that both baritones are or have been such fine Papagenos too.) Everything is there: intelligence, albeit cruelly circumscribed and tormented, an agony that is almost Christ-like, and, perhaps most painful of all, an empty, dulled numbness at the close. Keenlyside has done many, many wonderful things, but I am not sure that any of them can have been better than this. KaritaMattila brings an undeniable Finnish accent to her German, but it helps one hear the words: no bad thing. Her performance was as committed as one might expect; it drew one in, had one sympathise almost beyond endurance in the Bible-reading scene. EndrikWottrich’s Drum Major offered a stronger performance than any I can recall from him, his swagger, in both stage and vocal terms, finely judged indeed. The unmistakeable John Tomlinson made for a splendid Doctor; there was no doubting his understanding and communication of the text. Likewise the wonderful Gerhard Siegel as the Captain, putting his experience as Mime to good use in a performance of duly perverted power. For this was a proper team effort, all of the cast deserving of praise, all of their efforts at the service of Berg’s drama. I emerged duly moved, duly bludgeoned.

Mark Berry

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Wozzeck on 2 December at 7.30

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