Berg: Wozzeck

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 13th November 2013 3 stars

Simon Keenlyside as Wozzeck in Wozzeck © ROH / Catherine Ashmore 2013It’s not hard to imagine Berg being captivated by Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck when he saw one of its first performances in Vienna in 1914; written in 1836, and left unfinished at its author’s premature death, it’s a play out of time, a bizarre, fragmentary artefact that meshed so perfectly with the modernist aesthetics of German Expressionism that it might have been designed for the purpose. In Berg’s hands, it became one of the defining works of 20th century music – and certainly one of the greatest of modern operas. Harrowing and tender, abrasively dissonant and suddenly lyrical by turns, it remains an immensely powerful portrait of one man’s gradual dehumanisation and descent into madness and murder. Given the general state of the world over the past 90 years, its apocalyptic vision has probably never seemed less than relevant since the work’s 1924 debut; in 2013, grinding poverty, insane institutions, the pathologising of almost everything and the sort of philosophical and political reductionism that renders people less than fully human are all, unhappily, still with us.

The trouble with Keith Warner’s staging (returning for the second time since its 2002 debut) is that, despite grappling head-on with some of Wozzeck’s themes, it leaves others quite to one side and ultimately tends to defuse the work’s emotional charge. The pain of the central characters’ situation – ever present in the music – is not, perhaps, communicated fully by treating them as objects of study rather than subjects of the drama. Of course, such dehumanisation is precisely what Buchner and Berg were interested in, and it’s this motif that’s foregrounded in Warner’s reading. There’s a strong sense that what we’re watching isn’t, in fact, so much a drama as an experiment: the late Stefanos Lazaridis’s set is a sinister and gigantic white-tiled laboratory – although the dark mildew stains creeping up the tiles in places suggest that it’s not an experiment that can be entirely contained, even in this sterile environment in which the only objects present are a number of foreboding glass specimen cases. Real life, in all its beery, sensual messiness, is banished to a tiny, projecting corner of the stage; here, perched on dark floorboards rather than gleaming tiles, is Marie’s bed and an upright pub piano. Wozzeck shuttles and shuffles between these two worlds, although is mostly trapped in the increasingly bizarre regimes of the Captain and the Doctor. Finally, after he has broken down completely, he becomes another specimen, suspended in bloody water in one of the glass tanks like a Damien Hirst creation – a chilling bit of theatre and a disturbingly haunting image.

Warner’s approach is psychological – even, one might say, meta-psychological – more interested in how we analyse and categorise the awkward underclass than how they got to be that way; unlike Carrie Cracknell’s brave and startlingly naturalistic updating for ENO last season – real people in a real time and place – this is a Wozzeck that provides no social or political context for its lab-rat losers, just an existentialist nightmare from which there can be no escape. Poverty as lack of control – that sense of an earth hollowed out shifting beneath one’s feet – seems here just one more sign of mental instability than a terrible trap into which the characters have fallen.

Likewise, in the final scene, in which the boy is left tied by his father to his dead mother’s adulterous bed, the voices of the mocking children are bounced about the auditorium by loudspeakers, cut off from any real presence; again, the effect is to suggest the psychological residue of some Freudian trauma rather than the way in which poverty and pain are largely the result of external, if largely unchanging, factors to do with human institutions and human cruelty.

Warner had a fantastic cast to conduct his experiment on, although the results were strangely mixed. Karita Mattila was never going to be entirely convincing as the garrison bike; her Marie was beautifully, opulently, and often movingly sung (in the Bible reading scene, for instance), but I was never really convinced by her characterisation or her relationship with Simon Keenlyside’s Wozzeck. Keenlyside, of course is, a first-rate actor, and his was a more complex performance. Surprisingly understated, it presented the suffering soldier as an essentially innocent figure, completely unable to comprehend what his barking mad betters are demanding of him. At times, as his movements became semi-mechanical and full of recurring tics, he reminded me of one of the equally dehumanised and downtrodden subterranean proles in Lang’s Metropolis; what was arguably missing was a real sense of the growing, inarticulate rage that wells up and explodes in the final tragedy. Nevertheless, you couldn’t fault his breath control; not many baritones can have spent their final 10 minutes onstage immersed in a tank of water.

There was colourful support in the shape of John Tomlinson’s Doctor – although his mad-scientist routine was perhaps a bit too affable – and Gerhard Siegel’s Captain, particularly strongly sung, but equally a grotesque. Endrik Wottrich’s Drum Major was a bit short on the unpleasant swagger the role demands.

In the end, despite the brilliant cast, the clever visuals and the thoughtful direction, I couldn’t help feeling that this was only a partial Wozzeck and only a partial success. Berg’s magnificent, searing score triumphed, though, and while Sir Mark Elder didn’t deliver the most incisive account I’ve ever heard, it was he and the orchestra who provided the real emotional clout of the evening.

By David Sutton

Photos: Catherine Ashmore