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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Alban Berg, Wozzeck (new production premiere) Soloists, Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 19th Frebruary 2005 (BK)



The recessed windows above the entrance to the brand-new Wales Millennium Centre say pretty well everything about WNO at the moment. 'Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration,' the windows spell out in Welsh; and they add in English, 'In these stones, horizons sing.'


Confident mottos then, for a confident enterprise. The 1900 seat Donald Gordon auditorium (a shared facility for opera, dance and other theatre) provides WNO with the technical resources and the space needed to expand its already formidable reputation at long last. And after having devised a bold new pricing strategy for opera performances there - the maximum seat price is £35 and some cost as little as a fiver - the company chose Wozzeck for its first new production rather than something safer. Omens for the future really don't come much better than this these days, because this is a marvellous production.

Christopher Purves (Wozzeck) and Gun-Brit Barkmin (Marie)


Directed by Richard Jones, this co-production with Berlin’s Komische Oper realises Büchner's pre-Marxian critique of society appropriately bleakly but also with a good deal of grim humour. Wozzeck is factory worker rather than an army conscript, whose senseless and poverty stricken existence forces him into servitude and exploitation by people obsessed by an amoral and mindless acceptance of consumerism. The mindlessness though is particularly important because, influenced by RD Laing's anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 70s, Jones also takes the view that almost everyone else in Wozzeck's world (with the possible exception of Marie) is mad or nearly so, despite occupying positions of power.


Christopher Purves as Wozzeck


Within this Laingian context, Wozzeck's paranoia is shown not only as an understandable response to his mad surroundings but as the only sane and existentially authentic way to deal with them. Elected (so to speak) as a scapegoat by the near-psychotic Doctor, by the angst-ridden Captain and by the psychopathic Drum Major, Wozzeck 'eats his beans' as ordered by the Doctor faithfully (and frequently in this production) and also carries out the Doctor's senseless experiments. His descent into murder and 'accidental' suicide provides the others with a convenient psychological defence that allows them to deceive themselves about their own mental aberrations. In the final scene, a chilling epilogue to the whole drama is shown when Wozzeck's child inherits his father's only possession (a spoon) and solemnly opens a can of beans too.

The set and costume designs by Paul Steinberg and Buki Shiff, reflect Wozzeck's restricted world brilliantly. Cans of beans, factory conveyor belts (either actual or mimicked by the behaviour of the people at the tavern) and rubbish skips are on stage constantly while a bar-coded drop curtain falls between the scenes. The costumes are all quasi-modern; the Drum Major appears in golfing gear (or something like it), the women in the tavern are in tatty finery and Wozzeck and the other workers are in food factory overalls and hats. Everything is so carefully integrated that even the programme has baked beans on its cover.


Matthew Brettle (Wozzeck's Child) and the Children's Chorus

One of the definite delights of the evening was the acoustic in the Donald Gordon theatre. This is a big space, attractively finished in local brick and wood in the main, with wide aisles, ample leg room and comfortable seating but with a distinct sense of intimacy between audience, orchestra and singers. Whether the sound is uniformly fine everywhere is impossible to say of course, but from the raised stalls there was a sense of auditory clarity that would be hard to beat in most modern concert halls. Altogether, a very pleasurable experience indeed.


And so was the music itself. It is difficult to speak too highly of Vladimir Jurowski's reading of this difficult score. The music was warmly melodious where appropriate, often remarkably beautiful and always so clear that the various stylistic allusions that the score contains were unusually apparent. Once again Mr Jurowski brought something very special to WNO to which his orchestra, the soloists and the chorus responded with enthusiastic commitment.


Christopher Purves as Wozzeck was ideally cast with exactly the right baritone sound for his demanding role while Gun-Brit Barkmin's warm and flexible singing made her an attractive and believable Marie. Sprechstimme presented none of its customary difficulties for any of the cast and as the Captain, Peter Hoare ( a fine Bacchus in last season's Ariadne auf Naxos) gave another excellent performance. Equally effective were Clive Bayley as the nearly-psychotic Doctor and Peter Svenson as a particularly malevolent Drum Major. The WNO chorus (trained as usual by Donald Nally) were better than ever - and they are usually extremely fine.

A exceptional evening then, and one that augurs well for WNO's future in their new home. Great opera, a great new venue and great value for money. What more could we ask?



Bill Kenny



Pictures: Wales Millennium Centre © Neil Bennett


Wozzeck Pictures: © Bill Cooper, February 2005



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