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Visceral Wozzeck

1 Nov

The performance of Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House on 31st October made me wish I knew the opera better.  By that, I mean that, although I have seen it ten times, in lots of places I feel I’m hearing it for the first time.  I don’t have the same memory for the orchestration and the way in which the words and vocal lines go that I have in respect of other operas that I’ve seen thus far.  It’s something I rarely listen to on CD, partly because it’s not exactly grateful listening after a day’s work.  But, in the right performance, it’s easily the most shattering, visceral experience I know (I shook for about 10 minutes after the 1985 Dohnanyi performances) and, one day, I must spend some time getting to know it well.

This may account for the fact that every time I hear and see it, it feels slightly different.  I suspect that the sprechgesang accentuates this – genuinely the singers are not singing the same notes every time you hear them.  But there seems so much more leeway for conductors.  I remember Pappano and Harding- the last two conductors of it at this address – finding a lyricism and beauty about the score that I didn’t get from Mark Elder’s conducting this time.   Instead, we had a jagged spikiness about it that accentuates the horrors of the piece and matched Keith Warner’s production in providing a horribly disturbing evening.  I don’t think I’ve so clearly heard the influence of this piece on Britten, not just structurally, but in the orchestral effects – particularly the harp, but also sounds which recalled Grimes and Lucretia in particular.

Keith Warner was back to rehearse his production, now 11 years old.  It feels like one of the finest productions that the ROH has in its repertory.  The setting is a great laboratory or asylum with a space to the side front for Marie’s house – a tiny space for the real people in the opera.  There are huge glass cases of specimens.  The back of the asylum lifts to let you have marvellous mirror effects of Marie up in the sky, of the soldiers in the barrack, looking almost almost like specimens in the cases, the party and the moon.  It’s very beautiful indeed.  Most of the effects that I remembered are still there but it’s hard,  seven years on since the last revival to tell how much has been changed for this cast.  It doesn’t matter much, because it works so well: it’s a a production that draws you in to the nightmare world, which leaves you with marvellous images – the boy at the end tied to the bed, Wozzeck alone, outside during the pub scene, the sheer madness of the Doctor and Captain.

Simon Keenlyside is Wozzeck – singing with  a mixture of heart-rending beauty, as if it were by Schubert and off the wall violence.  He creates a pigeon-toed, nervy character, desperate to please and aware of his failure – a man on the edge.  He caught the sheer horror when he saw Marie and the Drum Major at the dance.  It’s one of his typically generous performances which gives pretty much everything and the kitchen sink and was also hugely moving.
Karita Mattile sang Marie gorgeously – massive, generous tone and she conveyed an impulsive, opportunistic woman – very early on getting a suitcase to leave.  At times I wondered if she wasn’t a bit stagey – a bit too dramatic.  I’ve got more out of, say Anja Silja’s stillness in the role.

The rest was probably the best Wozzeck  supporting cast that I’ve seen.  John Tomlinson stood out as the Doctor – mad, dangerous and cynical – he got a number of laughs from the audience in an opera which is not particularly associated with them.  His voice sounded in marvellous condition.  Endrick Wottrich was a really good Drum Major conveying just the ghastly virility and violence and singing with huge power.  Gerhard Siegel was a completely dotty Captain.  John Easterlin sounded a very powerful Andres – unusual in this role.  Robin Tritschler was a whey Fool and Allison Cook made an excellent impression as Margret.

The orchestra played wonderfully for Elder – it felt precise and angular and anguished.  Elder almost matched Dohnanyi in the power of the two cresendos after Marie’s death and, I thought, made the interlude after Wozzeck’s death heartbreaking.  He caught the power and menace of the score.

At the end, there was silence.  The boy went up to the case holding Wozzeck’s body.  He turned to look at us.  The lights fell and there was that couple of seconds of silence as the audience absorbed what it had just seen before the applause hesitantly began.  That’s the sort of reaction Wozzeck should get – and it was followed by prolonged, appreciative applause.  Go, if you can.