Wozzeck, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2013

In Georg Büchner’s original play Woyzeck the eponymous character is a poor man discombobulated by his superiors, the Captain and the Doctor. They mock his inability to keep his common law wife Marie away from the amorous attentions of the Drum Major, and his poverty compels his participation in the Doctor’s experiments. He cannot compete with the Drum Major, and getting beaten up by him is the last straw. He kills his adored Marie.

Captain, Wozzeck, Doctor, all images ENO/ Tristram Kenton

Captain, Wozzeck, Doctor, all images ENO/ Tristram Kenton

Recovering the knife he used, and attempting to get rid of it in the lake, he drowns, so the play’s ending reflects Wozzeck’s mental state of drowning in abuse and the ill effects of the Doctor’s experiments. In this new production by Carrie Cracknell, Wozzeck slits Marie’s throat and later his own, so the imagery of the lake disappears, though it remains in the text, and the final scene with Marie’s little boy blithely playing on his hobby-horse is replaced with the boy’s portrayal as slightly older and taunted by other children. But these quibbles aside the production works very well indeed. Tom Scutt’s excellent designs, showing us the inside of various rooms, all in one set, give a claustrophobic feel to the drama, amplified by performing it with no interval.

2.Wozzeck, James Cleverton, Clare Presland, Adrian Dwyer, Andrew Greenan (c) Tristram Kenton

The transfer to the modern world of British soldiers at war, with coffins draped in Union Jacks, and Wozzeck’s friend Andres as a one-legged amputee, helps bring it all to life. Wozzeck and Andres, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, are running drugs hidden in toy dinosaurs, and Marie is an attractively sexy young woman. The earrings the Drum Major gives her glitter their disdain of Wozzeck, and I prefer the naturalness of this production to stagings that over-emphasise the strange behaviour of the Doctor and Captain.

The killing of Marie

The killing of Marie

Leigh Melrose gave a wonderfully sympathetic portrayal of Wozzeck, Sara Jakubiak sang an impressively beautiful Marie, and James Morris was a powerful force as the Doctor. All six principals came over strongly, with Tom Randle a strong presence as a tattooed and half naked Captain, Bryan Register a tough looking Drum Major and Adrian Dwyer as the maimed Andres. Good support from the chorus and other cast members including an impressive Clare Presland as Marie’s neighbour Margret.

The original three acts, each split into five scenes, become a sequence of fifteen scenes in this illuminating production, and a helpful synopsis in the programme delineates not only the course of action but the musical character of each scene. Musically this was stunning. Edward Gardner produced wonderful playing from the orchestra, and the two crescendos after Marie’s death were beautifully carried aloft like birds of prey observing the tragedy below. Gardner cleverly had the musicians hold their instruments in playing position at the end, allowing a moment’s silence to savour Berg’s remarkable music before the applause erupted.

Unquestionably worth seeing, with performances continuing until May 25 — for details click here.

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