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S & H Opera Review

Berg, ‘Wozzeck’ Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday October 15th 2002 (ME)


Kurt Weill called ‘Wozzeck’ ‘a masterpiece of tremendous power,’ and this shattering new production from the Royal Opera, marking the London operatic debut of Matthias Goerne in the title role, can have left no doubt that here is a work which, when performed with such overwhelming commitment, must be regarded as one of the most powerful musical and theatrical experiences of our time. To coin a phrase from ‘Capriccio,’ it seems that the current critical style is ‘First the production, then the music’ (in one case, three paragraphs of the first followed by one about the orchestra and then a final one about some of the singers) so I will make no apology for deviating from that norm and concentrating on the singing, which on this evening was at a level rarely encountered except, in my experience, in the fragmented memories of those whose musical lives began well before most of us who write about music were even born.

Matthias Goerne PHOTO © Bill Cooper

This opera stands or falls by its protagonist, and Matthias Goerne is quite simply the Wozzeck of our time, a singer of prodigious natural gifts who combines the touchingly sympathetic quality of Grundheber with the frighteningly obsessive air of José van Dam and the Hamlet-like introspection brought to the part by Donald Maxwell, hitherto for me the ideal Wozzeck in the unforgettable 1980 Scottish Opera production. Indeed, Goerne brings out, as no one before him, the ‘everyman’ qualities of the character, and the emphasis, both vocally and histrionically, is firmly upon the central tragedy of ‘Wir arme Leut’ – the destruction of the loving family unit brought about by poverty, cruelty, ignorance and betrayal. I have never before been so aware of the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ which beset this shambling, obtuse, contradictory character, but of course Wozzeck is not Hamlet; he has no Horatio to act as his foil, and he has no guiding rationality to stop him from falling into the abyss when it opens at his feet.

For anyone who knows this opera well, the most astonishing thing about this performance was the sheer accuracy of Goerne’s singing and the absolute perfection of his management of the ‘Sprechstimme,’ so that each line came across as poetic declamation: his finely focussed baritone easily rode the orchestra, his soft singing was a miracle of communication, and his frequent outbursts were often terrifying. This is a role which he has sung so completely into his voice that it is a part of him, and he responded to Keith Warner’s direction with ferocious physicality: Goerne would be reason enough for anyone who loves music and theatre to go to this production, but he was supported by a cast of the highest musical excellence, by orchestral playing and direction of sublime expressiveness and by a production of rare intelligence.

Katarina Dalayman is an experienced Marie, having sung the role at the Met and in many other houses, and she brought unusual ambivalence to the part; her voice is ideal for this music, possessing a natural sweetness but with a steely edge which she used to devastating effect in her final plea, and her characterization fascinatingly suggests a fallible, wilful partner rather than a conventional victim. Kim Begley’s lovely tenor voice was used with sardonic skill as the Drum Major, again far from conventional in his deceptively cosy persona, and Claire Powell and Jacob Moriarty gave touching portrayals of Margret and the child respectively.

Graham Clark and Matthias Goerne PHOTO© Bill Cooper

The cruel, sadistic pairing of the Captain and the Doctor can rarely have been so ideally incarnated as they were in Graham Clark and Eric Halfvarson: the latter presented an all too credible ‘man of science,’ and he was utterly mesmerizing in the scene where Wozzeck is being ‘experimented upon.’ Clark must have sung the Captain more frequently than any other tenor and his still bright, incisively produced tone and un-caricatured acting gave much pleasure. Mention must also be made of the very touching and sweet-toned Andres of Alasdair Elliott and the bell-like clarity and eerie serenity of the boys from the Tiffin School Choir.

The musical direction by Antonio Pappano, and the playing of the ROH orchestra, was quite superb. The string playing in the Wozzeck / Doctor / Captain trio had exactly the right sound, fugal in structure yet spilling over into menacing near-abandon, the many lyrical, near-Mahlerian phrases were played with the most wonderful tenderness, and such passages as that suggesting the waters closing over Wozzeck’s head, with their rising chromatic scales, created a tension that was almost palpable. The majestic D minor lament which closes the book on the opera’s central character was played with absolutely blazing commitment; a great performance by an orchestra who would clearly go to Hell and back for their new Music Director.

Keith Warner’s direction, Stefanos Lazaridis’ sets, Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes and Rick Fisher’s lighting formed a unified whole which made for a production which belongs on an altogether different plane to those I saw last season. The problem as to whether one should stage ‘Wozzeck’ realistically or as an expressionist piece was here solved in a way at once logical and sensitive – the set and movement were basically naturalistic, evoking a grim asylum in turn of the century Vienna when that city was the centre of medical experimentation, placed alongside the simple abode of Wozzeck’s family, and horrifyingly embellished with cases containing such things as foetuses and body parts – yet this was thrillingly balanced with a dream (or nightmare)-like backdrop, revealing Marie lying against a brilliant, calm blue sky or a set of frighteningly evocative cot-beds. This is, after all, what life is really like, and you do not need to be a poor shambling semi-lunatic to know why; all great artists know that, as Blake said, it is in the Imagination that we live forever, and this director has fully understood the combination of day to day brutality, touching domestic detail and outrageous flights of fancy which make up the sum total of the lives of so many of those who ‘grunt and sweat under a weary life.’

Matthias Goerne and Katarina Dalayman PHOTO© Bill Cooper

Everything in this production worked, for me, and gave evidence of what operatic direction is for, that is, to enable the singers to convey the composer’s musical thoughts within a framework which neither distorts nor trivializes. Such scenes as the heart-rending moment when the child’s little hand reaches out to touch his father’s, from under the bed where the little mite has been sheltering, the truly horrifying minutes when Wozzeck is being subjected to what looks like colonic irrigation, and most of all the shattering scene when he subsides into the glass tank filled with water and then remains there for the remainder of the opera like one of the Doctor’s specimens (surely one of the most demanding pieces of stage action ever demanded of a singer) were all conceived and executed with the intensity that marks out the truly great. An absolute triumph, and absolutely unmissable.


Melanie Eskenazi

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