Sunday 12 May 2013

Wozzeck, English National Opera, 11 May 2013

The Coliseum

(sung in English)

Wozzeck – Leigh Melrose
Marie – Sara Jakubiak
Captain – Tom Randle
Doctor – James Morris
Drum Major – Bryan Register
Andres – Adrian Dwyer
Margret – Claire Presland
First Apprentice – Andrew Greenan
Second Apprentice – James Cleverton
Madman – Peter van Hulle
Marie’s Child – Harry Polden

Carrie Cracknell (director)
Ann Yee (choreography)
Tom Scutt (set designs)
Oliver Townsend, Naomi Wilkinson (costumes)
Jon Clarke (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Handley)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

If a production, and I include musical as well as staging elements here, has one more strongly confirmed in one’s judgement that Wozzeck is not only the greatest opera of the twentieth century but one of the greatest from any century, then it has accomplished its principal goal admirably. The first night of ENO’s new production unquestionably achieved that, reminding one yet again how paltry most operas, whenever they were written, seem when placed anywhere near Berg’s shattering drama. Tears certainly came to this reviewer’s eyes more than once during the third act, only to be superseded by a numb sense of utter horror at the child’s future prospects, or rather lack thereof, in the final scene as music and drama so chillingly came to their celebrated halt: no conclusion, simply the most abject desolation.

Carrie Cracknell’s contemporary – to us – production may not encompass everything suggested by Berg’s work, but most sensible people would agree that a single interpretation need not; it is perfectly possible to concentrate upon certain ideas, and to leave others for another time. There may be losses entailed in that course of action – for me, the Doctor’s experiments sat somewhat oddly, some might even say nonsensically, with the rest of the action – but there will be gains too. We are in a barracks town, suffering from disorder both social and, in Wozzeck’s own case, post-traumatic. The wretched vision – is it only his? Or is it real? – of a coffin draped in the Union flag, its pallbearers, and a soldier in action hammers home the point (some might say a little too heavily, but I was won over). The squalor of Marie’s council flat tells its own tale, as does the centrality, somehow greater than one generally senses, of the tavern to this town’s horrible, hopeless life. Though not a barracks town, and Aldershot or somewhere might have been a better example, something about the portrayal suggested a certain, perhaps rather dated, view of a northern city such as Hull.

The odd thing about Wozzeck, set against such a backdrop, is that he seems less ill, more philosopher. There is of course an element of that in the opera in any case, but it is brought out more strongly here. Madness gives way to ‘Hamlet in Hull’, who eventually resolves, with a greater degree of calculation than one might expect, to kill Marie and then himself; we seem more to be in the realm of EastEnders perhaps, as Marie’s flat floods – there is no lake as such – and turns partly red. One also senses more strongly than usual that this is one level the story of a crime, explicable yes, but still a murder, one that led, of course, to a celebrated trial. (The city museum in Leipzig to this day has a fascinating section of its permanent exhibition on the original case as well as Büchner and Berg.) Violence hits home too, whether that of Wozzeck’s crime, that of the Drum-Major’s vile abuse of him, or that simply endemic to society both particular and general.  

Designs are properly ghastly, enhancing claustrophobia and the town’s desolate tackiness. The former quality hits home all the more strongly given the excellent decision to have all locations present on stage at once, sometimes used and/or lit, sometimes not; there is no escape from what becomes very much a community drama in the most negative sense.  There is perhaps a sense that this was conceived more as a piece of spoken theatre, or at least closer to that tradition than might in principle be ideal, but on those terms, it works very well, Richard Stokes’s exemplary translation contributing powerfully to the drama, without drawing undue attention to itself.

I was fascinated by Edward Gardner’s conducting of the score. Gardner’s method is certainly not what I have become accustomed to, nor what I am ultimately likely to favour, but the well-nigh neo-Classical bent imparted to Berg’s closed forms brought revelations of its own. Rarely if ever can the inner workings, the ‘constructed’ quality, of Berg’s score have been lain so bare. The ENO Orchestra, a very few, quite forgivable, slips aside, followed his direction admirably indeed. There was certainly hyper-Romantic, expressionistic loss, especially earlier on, yet the final Interlude retained most of its horrifying impact; at last, it seemed, there was opportunity properly to cut loose. As an additional standpoint, quite distinct from those offered by great interpreters such as Abbado, Boulez, Böhm, and Barenboim, this musical narrative of mechanisation briefly wrenched into human subjectivity, if only in death, had me thinking in various ways not only about the score but about the drama as a whole.

Leigh Melrose made a wonderfully human hero, as starkly opposed to such mechanisation as to the barbarity of his social conditions. The aforementioned ‘Hamlet’ quality of philosophising and indecision was at least as much his accomplishment as the production’s, not quite so ‘intellectual’ as Fischer-Dieskau’s controversial portrayal, but complex in a different and not entirely unrelated fashon. Marie is a very difficult role to bring off convincingly; ideally, one needs to be Waltraud Meier, but what to do if one is not? Too much of the whore and not enough of the angel, or the other way around? Sara Jakubiak managed the tricky balance very well, soaring moments of radiance pitted against the grime of quotidian existence. Tom Randle was, as usual, excellent beyond the call of duty as the Captain, he and James Morris as the Doctor offering exemplary clarity of line and diction, as well as fully inhabiting their flawed characters. (We should, of course, remember that their flaws are in large part also to be attributed to the viciousness of society; Wozzeck and Marie are not the only victims.) Bryan Register’s thuggish Drum Major horrified in the best sense, whilst Adrian Dwyer and Clare Presland offered finely-etched portrayals of the ‘other’, surviving couple, Andres (perhaps his wheelchair proved a cliché too far?) and Margret. Presland’s crazed, dramatically truthful moment in the tavern limelight proved a powerful moment in its own right, presaging Wozzeck’s deeds yet also offering an alternative. Peter van Hulle offered another example of truth in madness, the hallowed tradition of the Fool cast in new light. Harry Polden – how one felt for him, cowed under Marie’s kitchen table as she entertained the Drum Major in her off-stage bedroom! – and the other children had us shiver, shudder, turn in righteous anger against the wickedness of a society, our society, which we know will perpetrate the same horrors upon them. Who cares? Certainly not our political class; yet do we? Truly? Wir arme Leut’...