Sunday, 12 May 2013

"Who's afraid of Alban Berg ?" ENO's new Wozzeck

Even though it's nearly 90 years old,  Alban Berg's Wozzeck can be a hard sell because it's perceived as too "modern" for some. Thus the ENO Wozzeck at the Coliseum is an ideal introduction to the opera, to Berg and indeed to modern music in general. The director, Carrie Cracknell, is a theatre director new to opera, so she approaches the opera as a drama rather than as an opera.  We're reminded that Berg's Wozzeck was based on Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck. Here, the abstract complexities of Berg's score become almost incidental. Still, this Wozzeck is engaging and should prove an excellent introduction for audiences new to the opera.

Cracknell's Wozzeck is a concrete concept, solidly grounded in the present: Wozzeck (Leigh Melrose) is a hard-working squaddie with psychiatric problems who murders Marie (Sara Jakubiak) in a sordid domestic dispute. We could be watching a film, or a social documentary. This is perfectly valid. Many ordinary lives are just as tragic, but they don't get commemorated in great art or music. The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is cluttered, a visual metaphor for Wozzeck's disordered mind.  The structure doesn't change, but action moves from compartment to compartment. Each "room" lights up as needed. Connections are minimal.  The military is an enclosed, authoritarian environment. Wozzeck is trapped, by the set, by the system and by his own mind.

A small boy (Harry Polden) appears very early on in this production. At first he's anonymous, holding a gun pointed at Wozzeck. Berg's stage directions place the child in the frame while Marie and the Drum Major (Bryan Register) have their tryst.  He also appears in the final scene, taunted by other children. But his presence is implicit. Wozzeck may not be the father of the child, but the child is the father of the man. Wozzeck's tragedy began long before the show began. It will repeat, perhaps, with the orphaned child.

Wozzeck's delusions about mushrooms, smells and blood are evidence that he's mad. When Leigh Melrose sings "It reeks!" his voices rises to manic pitch. Given the circumstances he's in, anyone would have psychiatric issues. Wozzeck works hard "for Marie" but for Berg, his abject humiliation goes much deeper. Berg developed his ideas during a stint in the Austrian military during the First World War. He connects Wozzeck's doggedness to the animal-like subservience of the populace to their masters. Arguably, Wozzeck is less insane than the Captain (Tom Randle) or the Doctor (James Morris). Indeed, the Doctor is the craziest of all, with his crackpot theories, emotional blackmail and selective double-think. But he's a symbol of authority. Perhaps it's significant that Berg spent time in a military hospital. James Morris looks wonderful and sings well, but the political edge in this production is nil. When the emphasis is on working class Wozzeck's madness, the Captain and Doctor get off the hook.

As social drama, this Wozzeck is top notch. As a musical experience, it's much less perceptive. Berg's  music is every bit as intricate and maze-like as Wozzeck's mind. Edward Gardner is most impressive conducting the big, dramatic "curtains" Berg writes into the music, a foretaste of the music we would now associate with the movies. There was a TV series called "Dragnet" which used the theme Berg uses to "close" the scene on Wozzeck's death.  Gardner makes that music explode. He's a lot less inclined towards subtleties, like the intricate interweaving of theme and ideas. On the other hand, this wasn't a production where subtlety mattered, so he can be forgiven.  Singing isn't something which can be measured objectively, either. Sara Jakubiak's voice  reached wild crescendi, which suggested the emotional strain Marie was going through but didn't bring out the warmth that Berg wrote into the part. Oddly, what came over strongly was the way the shape of the Coliseum distorts the sound coming from the pit. The orchestra is spread out over the breadth of the stage, so the bassoons and brass dominate more than they would in a more conventional seating plan.

Next season, Keith Warner's Berg Wozzeck is revived at the Royal Opera House. It's set in what looks like a laboratory, lit with extreme, unnatural light. Perhaps we're in the Doctor's mind. "O, meine Theorie! " where obsessiveness overrides humanity. Carrie Cracknell stages Wozzeck's death over a diningb table, which is perfectly fair enough: it's hard to show drowned corpses. Warner solves the problem by having Wozzeck jump into a glass tank, where he floats  helplessly like yet another of the crackpot Doctor's lab experiments. Warner's Wozzeck is truly exceptional, but quite demanding. Cracknell's ENO Wozzeck is excellent preparation.

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