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Berg, Wozzeck (Review II): Graham Clark, (Captain), Johan Reuter (Wozzeck), Susan Bullock (Marie), Kurt Rydl (Doctor), Jorma Silvasti (Drum Major), Daniel Harding (conductor), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Chorus of the Royal Opera, The Royal Opera, 7.3.2006 (AO)


"The function of a composer is to solve the problems of an ideal stage director" wrote Alban Berg in 1927. "My intention was to give to the theatre what belongs to the theatre. ….. "No one in the audience, no matter how aware he may be of the musical form….. gives any heed to anything but the vast social implications of the work which transcend by far the personal destiny of Wozzeck. This, I believe, is my accomplishment."

Berg knew the technical limitations of stagecraft in his time, but he also knew that, in Wozzeck, he had written something radical that transcended time. For him the opera’s message was paramount : his aim was to confront the audience and make it think. This most cerebral of operas received perhaps its most intuitive interpretation in the groundbreaking Keith Warner production at Covent Garden in 2002, which is being revived this season. The original production was controversial because it was so thought provoking and challenging. In the last few years it has been discussed so often that its insights are now better understood, and the opera’s multi-level complexity even more appreciated.


Few revivals have the energy of the first production, particularly when, as in this case, the original cast were intimately involved in developing the concept. This emotional commitment gave their work an intense, personal quality which is almost impossible to replicate. Matthias Goerne, a veteran of four major productions of Wozzeck, and a man passionately intrigued by the opera, created the idea of Wozzeck floating lifeless in the glass cube near the end. It was, as Warner said at the time, a flash of inspiration that no director would dream of suggesting. The image expresses Berg’s central beliefs so vividly that any new solution to the staging will be haunted by the idea of Wozzeck silently confronting the audience, forcing them to address their complacency.

A good revival, however, isn’t a mere repetition. It should seek its own unique way of reinterpreting and refining the original. Two of the leads, Johan Reuter and Susan Bullock were new to Covent Garden. Bullock is well known in Strauss and Wagner in Europe, and her Opera House debut has long been delayed. Here, although she sang beautifully, her Marie was a loving mother singing lullabies, the raw brutality of her situation softened by gentleness. However, like the mushrooms in the grass and the frogs in the pond, Marie represents primal nature, untrammelled by logic or conscience. She is a counterpoint to the controlling, manipulative world of unreality that the Doctor and Captain represent.


Johan Reuter’s experience has been centred mainly in Denmark. Although he has sung one Wozzeck with one of the smaller German companies, it is quite a leap from that to headlining at Covent Garden. His is a firm, resonant bass baritone, but somewhat lacking in colour. Had his portrayal been less one dimensional, it might have worked, but unfortunately he did not fully “inhabit” the complex character. Where Goerne crackled with animal magnetism, even when passive and silent, Reuter seems to slip in and out of form. Noble, heroic roles might be his forte, but Wozzeck’s nobility is of an altogether more quirky, equivocal type. The range in the part is demanding : at one moment Wozzeck is wonderstruck by the sun, at another he comes up with unexpected home truths. He is numb with degradation and despair, yet his extreme, free floating anxiety leads to bursts of hysteria, and murder. The Doctor finds him unsettling and so does Marie. Reuter seems too earthbound and stolid to frighten anyone. Part of the reason perhaps is that he tends to rush over small, crucial details, such as when the child reaches out from under the bed to comfort him. What this role really needs is psychological insight and the ability to act “outside” oneself, and these are skills that either come intuitively or have to be learned from long familiarity with the score.


Graham Clark recreates his role in the original production as the Captain. Strangely, he comes over far less menacingly than before, the demonic violence that electrified his performance last time is much blunted here. Francis Egerton, as the Half-Wit, is another Covent garden veteran, and recreates his role with panache. This may not be a big role but it is critical to this highly integrated work where every note, every action has meaning. Hence praise should also go to Remi Manzi, who plays the non speaking role of Marie’s child. He is on stage throughout, silently observing, trying to interact, responding. Using off stage voices to portray the taunts of other children is another brilliant feature of this production : the child will carry the taunts in his mind, like Wozzeck did, whether or not they exist in objective reality. Jorma Silvasti was an excellent Drum Major bristling with the macho confidence that a more questioning person might lack. The role can be one dimensional, but Silvasti makes the most of tiny details, like patting the child fondly on the head.


What saved this revival was undoubtedly Harding’s conducting. In this production, the numerous scene changes in the script are dispensed with, to keep the pace of action flowing and modern technology means that curtains aren’t needed while sets are changed. While Pappano emphasized the folk tunes and lyrical episodes, Harding’s approach to the music is uncompromising. Like Wozzeck floating in death, confronting the audience, Harding does not let us off comfortably. The folk tunes were played with deliberate distortion, like lullabies overheard in a nightmare. Harding may have been a protégé of Claudio Abbado, whose Wozzeck is still one of the best recordings, but he is clearly his own man when it comes to creating a vision of what the piece means. Over the years, Harding has conducted Wozzeck many times and has developed a feel for the score which illuminates its complex, almost mathematical intricacy of design. His clear sighted approach brings clarity to the meticulously scored musical forms, which Berg called “Inventions”. In a way, I was glad that the singing and acting was disappointing, because it made it easier to focus on the music itself, which was Berg’s “key” to the action and ideas. Harding really understands, for example, the “role” the Epilogue plays. In Berg’s own words, it is “a confession of the author who now steps outside the dramatic action on the stage. Indeed it is, as it were, an appeal to humanity through its representative, the audience. From a musical standpoint this final orchestral interlude represents a thematic development of all the important musical ideas related to Wozzeck".

This vividly played passage is central to the message of the whole opera. It does not draw a curtain to "hide" the action, but is a backdrop with which to illuminate it in full, unflinching focus.

For a link to the review of the 2002 production, by Melanie Eskenazi, please see here. It was much discussed and links to it and Seen & Heard were published in several sites and journals

Anne Ozorio




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