Searing and strangely refreshing new Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/ Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 19.5.2023. (MB)

Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck) and Anja Kampe (Marie) © Tristram Kenton

Director – Deborah Warner
Designs – Hyemi Shin
Costumes – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting – Adam Silverman
Choreography – Kim Brandstrup
Chorus master: William Spaulding

Wozzeck – Christian Gerhaher
Marie – Anja Kampe
Captain – Peter Hoare
Doctor – Brindley Sherratt
Margret – Rosie Aldridge
Drum Major – Clay Hilley
Andres – Sam Furness
First Apprentice – Barnaby Rea
Second Apprentice – Alex Otterburn
The Fool – John Findon
Soldier – Lee Hickenbottom
Tenor Solo – Andrew Macnair
Marie’s Son – Jonah Elijah McGovern

Thirty years ago, in Sheffield, a teenage schoolboy saw his first opera in the theatre. It was Wozzeck, directed by Deborah Warner for Opera North. Quite an opera with which to begin, you might say, and indeed in many ways it was, yet why would you wish to begin with something that was not ‘quite an opera’? He knew a little more, though not much, opera not having been part of his childhood or more general homelife, nor indeed of his schooling. Plus ça change… By that time, he had just begun to explore the operas of Mozart, those you might expect: Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. He had also, slightly clueless, speculatively bought a reduced, ‘historic’ recording of Tristan und Isolde from WH Smith and had watched a video, kindly lent by his music teacher, of Die Meistersinger. That, however, was it. He had not yet knowingly listened to music of the Second Viennese School, though that also was suddenly about to change. It is no exaggeration to say that those hundred minutes in the Lyceum Theatre changed his life.

Fast-forward from 1993 to 2023: an avid (if, born perhaps of that initial experience, selective) operagoer travelled across another English city for the first night of a new production of Wozzeck, also directed by Deborah Warner, now for the Royal Opera. Full circle? Not really, nothing ever is. Our protagonist has, for better or worse, had numerous experiences, music, dramatic, emotional, and intellectual, since; he is certainly no longer a boy. Yet Wozzeck, which for him ever since has had at least as strong a claim as any to be the single greatest opera of the twentieth century, exerts, if anything, a still greater fascination and admiration, certainly a greater love, than it did then, born of three decades of living with it. How, then, would Warner II fare in circumstances both old and new?

Truth be told, if you spend your time in Wozzeck thinking about a previous production or performance, something has gone wrong (either with you, what is onstage, or both). I did not. In any case, comparisons either with Warner’s first staging or with when I had previously heard Antonio Pappano conduct the work – twenty-one years ago for Keith Warner’s then-new production (review click here) in his first season at Covent Garden – would largely be meaningless, given the vagaries of memory and my lack of a written record.

Deborah Warner in 2023 does not seem to me especially to take a view or standpoint, at least not exclusively. This is not a Wozzeck that (over-)emphasises the brutality of military life and war, or expressionist experimentalism, or any one thing, though many such things are present. The action is already taking place as we take our seats, soldiers (an excellent troupe/troop of actors) relieving themselves in various ways, cleaning up, doing very much what soldiers do in barracks. That establishes an expectation of realism which is not entirely fulfilled, but rather is supplemented, so that as the action develops, as different standpoints are afforded by the work (and probably its creator), we have opportunity to take them too. Everything takes place more or less where one might expect, but there are always refreshing touches of set design, costume, lighting, or detailed Personenregie – let alone the musical performances – to enable us to take a fresh look and listen. The drama unfolds, with great immediacy, yet always it feels that this is ultimately Wozzeck rather than ‘Deborah Warner’s Wozzeck’, whether that feeling, even that possibility, be a fond illusion or otherwise. Different settings for different scenes – no fewer than fifteen of them – present themselves without fussiness or fetishisation: this is a light, enabling, generous realism that can shade almost imperceptibly into other, complementary aesthetics as required. Credit is surely due both to the design team and to the Royal Opera House’s technicians and actors, who accomplished this feat with such apparent ease. Rehearsal surely paid off.

Deborah Warner’s new Wozzeck for The Royal Opera © Tristram Kenton

Slightly stylised trees, Cross-like, hint at Wozzeck’s fate, albeit without redemption, but also at a natural world beyond that neither knows nor cares, yet in some sense frames tragedies that lie in stark contrast, being entirely the creation of man. There remains a Romantic desire to escape this miserable world, even if only to Berg’s family estate (Berghof) in Carinthia. Like so much else, though, it is not possible. The blood-red moon and the black, unfathomable lake dominate our vision and consciousness as natural and human boundaries. And finally, in that ultimate, heart-breaking scene of horror: the child turns to the wall in front of which the other children have just been playing, to see painted on it the news they have so cruelly, carelessly delivered. His mother is dead. He turns around and walks off, alone. The drama stops, silence cruelly denied by some idiot’s premature applause — but even that could not quite break the punch to the solar plexus.

Much of that is, of course, a musical punch. Pappano really seems to be at his best right now. Shortly after thinking his Turandot perhaps the best I had heard from him, I found this Wozzeck at least close to equal, and in ways that surprised me. Without wishing to play that game of illusory comparisons, however tempting, I found this an infinitely more engaging experience than in 2002. Often quite extraordinary orchestral precision, for which one must of course above all credit the orchestra itself, laid bare the framework of closed forms in themselves, their multifarious musical procedures objects of an almost yet not quite Neue Sachlichkeit fascination, but also showed them to be the engines of a dramatic progression that, however Wagnerian it may often sound, is at least as much an alternative to Wagner’s method. There were wrenching, late-Romantic passages, of course, precisely where one would need and expect them, but this was also a musical drama that prefigured Hindemith, Weill, perhaps even Berg’s own teacher, Schoenberg. This was not always a Wozzeck that rose from the bass line, though sometimes it did, but it hinted more than usual at Berg’s later writing, whilst also suggesting an earlier, almost Mendelssohnian Romanticism. Like Warner’s production, it afforded different standpoints, without sounding merely sectional.

I have been fortunate to see some extremely fine Wozzecks in those years since my first encounter (Andrew Shore on that first encounter included). Christian Gerhaher’s thoughtful, collegial approach, placing himself and his character at the dramatic hub, gaining meaning as much from interaction with colleagues as from his considered yet apparently spontaneous way with the text, has nothing to fear from any of them. His performance, worlds away, as is proper, from the beauties of his celebrated Wolfram, was yet equally well judged. Indeed, I wonder whether it heralds a new chapter in his career. For now, though, it will more than do in and of itself.

There was splendid chemistry with his Marie, Anja Kampe. I was about to say ‘we tend…’, but should really only speak for myself: I tend often somewhat to overlook the tragedy of Marie’s death, so overwhelmed am I by that of Wozzeck. Here I felt greater parity, doubtless a matter of Warner’s Personenregie but also of Kampe’s portrayal. (It is more or less impossible for an outsider to distinguish between the two.) This important corrective was brought into further relief by Anna Picard’s excellent programme note on ‘Maria and her World’, whose closing words seem very much to refer to what we saw and heard: ‘She is no Kundry. Neither is she a Judith or the hysterical Woman in Marie Pappenheim and Arnold Schoenberg’s monodrama, Erwartung. Her murder is not dressed up as a form of release for Wozzeck or a point of debate. It is simply a domestic tragedy of a very ordinary, and ever modern, kind.’ Which also brings us back to Gerhaher’s Wozzeck, for his very haplessness – what art lay in that – also contributed to that very non-release, felt (at least by me) more emphatically than I can recall.

All in the cast contributed to the greater dramatic (and musical) whole, so much as to suggest unusually fruitful close collaboration between all concerned. Sam Furness’s Andres surprised me, not least because I often find myself wondering where the role went, thinking it smaller than I had expected. Not here: this was a character sympathetic to Wozzeck who yet had his own story to tell. Likewise Rosie Aldridge’s spirited Margret, whose spot in the second tavern scene almost had time stand still as the world disintegrated around her. Peter Hoare’s Captain and Brindley Sherratt’s Doctor made a sharply etched pair: guilty, yet not guilty, like all in the world we saw. Well, perhaps not quite all, for it is difficult to find any grounds to absolve the Drum Major, here given an appropriately nasty, bullying, yet finely sung performance by Clay Hilley. William Spaulding’s Royal Opera Chorus was on outstanding form too.

What, then, should a Wozzeck accomplish? There can be no definitive answer, no more than for any artwork in performance. Different productions, different performances, different audiences will all render such categorical statements in vain. If I have learned one thing over the past thirty years, it will be that. That said, if one does not emerge from a performance convinced that it is one of the greatest of all operas – ranking beyond that is a mere parlour game – it will have been in vain. My first experience was not; nor, emphatically was this: a searing and strangely refreshing Wozzeck, which I hope and intend to revisit soon.

Mark Berry

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