Wozzeck, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, November 2013Posted on 1 November 2013
October 2013 is the bicentenary of Georg Büchner, whose play Woyzeck is the basis for Berg’s opera. The play is sparely written, and after a few cuts and slight rearrangement of scenes, Berg produced an opera of striking power and musical invention.
It is not an easy task for the singers, with its four different modes of singing and Sprechgesang, but here was a cast of almost heavenly perfection. Gerhard Siegel and John Tomlinson were superb as Captain and Doctor, both slightly crazy yet never over the top. As they pull Wozzeck in opposite directions at one point he calls out Gott im Himmel that he could kill himself. In many ways it would be better to perform the opera in English, as Covent Garden did when they first produced it in 1952. But the surtitles work well, and understanding the text is crucial, its imagery brilliantly conveying the milieu in which Wozzeck and his common-law wife Marie try to make a life.
As he says to the captain, heaven is not the place for people like himself, and if they ever got there they would probably be set to work making the thunder. And as Marie says, people like her have only a little corner of the world and a little piece of mirror. Warner’s production reflects these feelings in placing their living quarters at a front corner of the stage, partly over the orchestra pit. Perfect for many in the audience but not for the arme Leut’ (Wozzeck’s expression) on the left hand side of the Amphitheatre.
The rest of the set with its mildewed white tiles expresses the intellectual seediness of the doctor and captain, who along with the drum major’s boisterous insolence and physical abuse drive Wozzeck into mental instability and suicide. But as he himself observes, Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund; es schwindelt einem, wenn man hinabsieht (Every person is an abyss; it makes one dizzy if one looks down).
In Warner’s production, beautifully lit by Rick Fisher, the four transparent containers on stage represent different aspects of Wozzeck’s relationship with others: captain, doctor, his friend Andres, and finally Marie. This last container, full of water, is where he kills her, and after returning to recover the knife he looks down and plunges into the abyss. It is a remarkable trick of the theatre that Wozzeck climbs into this water tank and as the water continues to redden he lies lifeless, his head submerged for seven minutes or so.
Along with superb vocal portrayals by John Tomlinson and Gerhard Siegel, and remarkably well-timed acting by Sebastian Wright as the child, Karita Mattila sang gloriously as Marie, expressing huge emotional power, and Simon Keenlyside gave the most beautifully nuanced performance of Wozzeck it is possible to imagine. You will not find a better cast, nor better conducting than Mark Elder delivered in bringing out the agony, intensity and extraordinary beauty of this 100-minute opera.
Plenty of tickets are still on sale, but if you choose Side Amphitheatre make sure it’s on the right, because of sight-lines to front stage right.
Four further performances take place on November 5, 8, 12, 15, and a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on December 2 at 7:30pm — for details click here.