Soap opera Wozzeck

18 May

In the right hands, Wozzeck is one of the most shattering experiences in the theatre, one that, in the past Dohnanyi, Silja and Van Dam, for example), has had me physically shaking for twenty minutes after the performance finished.  Despite admiring lots of things about the performance of the ENO’s new production of the opera on 13th May, it didn’t have quite that effect.

Carrie Cracknell has set the opera in contemporary England.  Wozzeck is back from the Iraq war, haunted by his experiences, acting as a drug carrier for the Captain and the Doctor, visiting Andres – disabled by the conflict in a wheelchair, in a room with saws and drills hung on the wall.  He lives in a tenement, where Marie puts her child to sleep under a table while she takes the Drum Major inside.  You see soldiers in gas-masks, carrying dead and mutilated women, coffins returning and you get the message.  This is an opera about a man destroyed by war in a society that simply exploits him.  At the end the child, carrying his dinosaur containing cocaine is left staring out into the audience as his friends and the set move away – this is the future.

It sort-of works.  Cracknell doesn’t shirk the horror – Wozzeck cuts his and Marie’s throats – blood comes pouring out.  The child sees them dead before the final scene.  You get the casual bullying, the cheapness of life and images for Wozzeck’s visions.  There is no room for the natural world here or for the contrast between Wozzeck’s visions and the world surrounding him.  The set, by Tom Scutt is ingenious – a tiered tower-block that looks like something out of Eastenders enabling the different scenes to be played on the same structure.  It’s oppressive.

This vision turns Wozzeck into a study of broken man in broken Britain – a tawdry episode of a soap opera that makes us think about the society we live in.  It misses the expressionism and the slightly supernatural horror of Berg’s vision.  There’s no forest, no moon to turn blood red, no lake to drown in.  I don’t insist on following all the instructions but I do miss the cosmic element that is part of this opera.  I also thought the set tended to dwarf the characters and accentuate how small they look in a theatre the size of the Coliseum.  I also felt that Richard Stokes’s translation didn’t particularly fit this view.  This isn’t a society where people talk about “my dear doctor” – the syntax sounded 19th century.  I felt uninvolved.

It must be hard having to act and project against a set that size and I thought the cast managed variably.  Leigh Melrose has always struck me as an amiable, honest, committed singer.  He displayed all of that here without, so far as I was concerned, suggested the more nightmareish side of the character or what causes him to kill Marie.  He’s a sympathetic singer – and sang strongly – but I wasn’t clear that he was ready for this role.  Sara Jakubiak was a really strong Marie, who projected a strong, tormented personality (but would she really read the Bible in this setting?).  Tom Randle was a vicious captain, James Morris a lumbering doctor.  I wasn’t greatly impressed by Bryan Register’s Drum Major – not strutting or thuggish enough and under-powered vocally.  Adrian Dwyer was a good Andres and nobody particularly let the side down, though I didn’t feel that I was seeing an outstanding cast.

Edward Gardner, predictably, starred in an very clear, powerful reading of the score.  The orchestra was in great form and you felt the horror gradually growing as the opera went on.  The interlude after the murder of Marie – one of my touchstones for the effectiveness of any performance had the right horror and intensity.

My partner absolutely hated the performance, feeling that it completely missed the expressionism that’s vital to the work.  That didn’t worry me so much.  I admired a detailed, professional, thoughtful piece of work (in an entirely different league from the Opera House’s La donna del lago later in the week) which sought to engage with the opera and present it to us.  What I did feel was that, in a theatre this size, it all needed to be a bit bigger and that I did not come out feeling as shattered and moved as I ought to be after this piece.

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