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Berg, Wozzeck: soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding. 2.3.2006. (JPr)


Director : Keith Warner
Stefanos Lazaridis
Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Rick Fisher


In 1935 Alban Berg, like Mahler almost a quarter of the century previously, died too early with a musical life that was unfulfilled. His first opera Wozzeck had been premièred in 1925 but a second Lulu remained unfinished at the time of his death. Berg was an early disciple of Gustav Mahler, and his widow Alma became a champion of Berg's compositions. So it is to her that Wozzeck is dedicated, and Alma underwrote Berg's printing of the score of this opera by Universal Edition. One of Berg's last compositions was his Violin Concerto written in memory of the death of young Manon Gropius, Alma's daughter by her second marriage.


This 2002 production of Wozzeck is revived at Covent Garden for the first time and remains a cold-hearted yet enthralling theatrical and musical event. The conductor, orchestra and set design (by Stefanos Lazaridis) were the real stars of the show but I sat through the entire evening (March 2) without having my emotions engaged apart from the occasional shocking depiction of colonic irrigation (or worse!) – that caused me to shift restlessly in my seat - and Wozzeck's ultimate suicide. The crux of the story is the humiliation and destruction of a simpleton who finally completely loses the plot and is driven to murder and then death at his own hands. Berg first saw this true morality tale as a straight play by Georg Büchner in 1914 and was inspired to write his opera. The director, Keith Warner's vision strips all the humanity and emotional simplicity from the piece mostly for mere artifice and effect.



The setting is a run-down Eastern European laboratory with tiled white mildewy walls (if not quite as mildewy as I remember?). It doubles as a laboratory for human experiments and a lunatic asylum. Four, largish glass tanks are lined up across the stage and are used to illustrate events and changes of scene in this opera that is performed without intervals. In successive displays there was a model of a town that eventually is consumed by fire, some toadstools and mushrooms in a second, foetuses in medical specimen jars in another and the final one is just full of water and plays a vital part in the denouement to the opera. At front right a panel cuts off part of the stage to represent the dingy room where Wozzeck's mistress Marie and their son live. This is also where she 'entertains' the Drum Major. The back wall of the laboratory rises intermittently and is replaced by a stage deep mirror that 'reflects' Wozzeck's fevered imaginings as well as a street and a barracks room.

Wozzeck's humiliation is clearly shown; his descent into madness through being bullied and cuckolded is vividly portrayed. He is diagnosed by the Doctor as having an idée fixe and so certainly does Keith Warner as ‘the Director’. There is a model plane, an animal mask, a white tiled laboratory and human experiments, all to be recently seen in his recent Siegfried on the same stage. For his Bayreuth Lohengrin there is a cute Oliver-like boy who is plucked from the crowd at the end to become Herzog of Brabant and of course, Marie’s son (Remi Manzi) is an important figure in this story, looking on events throughout and left alone at the end. (It must be odds-on that small children will feature near the end of Keith Warner’s forthcoming Götterdämmerung.)

Johan Reuter’s Wozzeck is more sympathetic than Matthias Goerne was in the first run. He was a bit of a lumbering oaf but here we had more of a cross between Lemmy (the gentle giant from ‘Of Mice and Men’) and the much put-upon Dave Boyle fighting his demons as portrayed by Tim Robbins in Clint Eastwood’s film of ‘Mystic River’. In Scene 2 Wozzeck rips the head off a toy Iguana (don’t ask!) but the Danish bass-baritone is always convincing in his descent through shame into despair, rage and violence. He could also evince a surprising delicacy of tone particularly with his ‘Ach Marie’ in Act 1 Scene 4.

Johan Reuter and Susan Bullock both sing the central characters of Wozzeck and Marie with great musical sensitivity. With other lesser interpreters these pivotal roles might just be a succession of barks, shrieks or yowls. However Susan Bullock is not as convincing as his ‘tart with a heart’ as Katarina Dalayman was in 2002. I never believed in her travails for one minute. Although in superb voice she never gave her all to take the risks that would create a real person. Also to see her having her skirt lifted and succumb to the Drum Major’s ‘charms’ was like hearing a quintessentially English Rose swear for the first time.

Britain’s inhibitions about sex appears to extend to its singers (and actors).Those from other more enlightened countries appear to get ‘down and dirty’ more realistically.

For a British singer there is often a language barrier that impedes their characterisation in this sort of music. That is, unless you are someone like Graham Clark here performing the Captain once again. He shares with Ms Bullock a perfect clarity of diction for the German but he is a proper ‘stage animal’ and he brings his part to real life. Admittedly it seemed more than ever a geriatric version of his Mime (his signature role) but it was a pleasure to see him back at Covent Garden once again. He hobbles around on two walking sticks and constantly bickers with the equally impressive evil doctor (or Doctor Evil?) of Kurt Rydl. This is a gift of a part for this veteran Austrian bass who is at his best when portraying baleful malevolence. He spends most of his big scene force-feeding beans to his victim.

There are a number of other solid cameo performances, most notably Jorma Silvasti as the Drum Major who indulges in that near graphic sex and sings with the right degree of lasciviousness in his voice. Berg’s music requires tremendous vocal agility which the experienced cast mostly tackle quite fearlessly.

The strident score is a mixture of the emotion of Wagner’s Tristan with Mahler’s juxtaposition of nature and everyday life such as in the military music (Act 1 Scene 3) and Ländler (Act 2 Scene 4). These examples and the chords as Wozzeck drowns himself are straight out of Mahler’s symphonies. At the end of the evening the feeling is nonetheless a rather cold experience and the only real pathos to be experienced is achieved from Daniel Harding's exceptionally intense, clear and committed account of Berg's score with his supportive Royal Opera House orchestra.

The evening ends with a true coup de théâtre as Wozzeck disposes of the knife he used on Marie into the water-filled glass tank and then slips slowly deeper down into it and drowns himself as he tries to reclaim the weapon. As if watching one of Houdini's famous illusions I just began to wonder if he was indeed ok - unfortunately this was the only time during the evening when - despite Keith Warner's best directorial efforts - I began to care what had happened to one of the 'people' on stage … but this was concern for the singer and not the character he was supposedly bringing to life!

© Jim Pritchard



Pictures © Bill Cooper



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