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 Berg, Wozzeck: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, Conductor, Lothar Koenigs, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 2.10.2009 (BK)

Co -Production between Welsh National Opera and Komische Oper, Berlin: first produced in Wales 19.2.2005

Director, Richard Jones
Revival Director/Choreographer, Benjamin Davis
Designer, Paul Steinberg

Chorus Master, Stephen Harris

Wozzeck, Christopher Purves
Captain, Peter Hoare
Andres, Ashley Catling
Marie, Wioletta Chodowicz
Drum Major, Hubert Francis
Margret, Dian Meinir
Doctor, Clive Bayley
Apprentice 1, David Soar
Apprentice 2, Howard Kirk
Idiot, Michael Clifton-Thompson
Orderly, Simon Curtis
Soldier, Paul Gyton
Marie’s son, Joel Chapman/ Rhys Pindar
Pianist, James Southall
Children’s Chorus drawn from local schools

Captain (Peter Hoare) Wozzeck (Christopher Purves) and the Doctor (Clive Bayley)

This production was WNO’s first outing at their new home in Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre in 2005 (see review.) Then, I thought the performance could hardly be bettered but it turns out that I was wrong: this revival brings both the music and the production’s message even more vividly to life.

remains as bleak as ever of course, an opera that resolutely brings life’s grimmer realities to scrutiny. We might argue that not everyone lives on the shadowy edges of society where survival is a constant struggle within a dog eat dog environment, but the bar code on the production’s safety curtain questions our comfortable assumptions even more now than it did four years ago. We may all be 'bar-coded' soon, with our new micro-chipped passports, a national DNA database and the government’s (abandoned?) proposal for an identity card scheme. ‘Freedom is Slavery’ George Orwell famously said in 1984, ‘War is Peace ’ and ‘Ignorance is Strength’ : some of us in the UK seem already  to love Big Brother.

The skill of Richard Jones’ conception is  twofold: first it portrays the playwright Georg Büchner’s immensely perceptive commentary about the effects of an industrial/capitalist society on a vulnerable individual persuasively, but secondly, it couples its message with the psychiatrist RD Laing’s idea that our definitions of madness can be terrifyingly arbitrary. Laing said that many so-called ‘mad’ people actually make very good sense,  if you look at their lives carefully enough from their own points of view. On the other hand, when seen from the 'patient's' perspective, some of the people who make judgments about our sanity can look madder than apple crumble – or baked beans, in Jones’s production.

Wozzeck works in a bizarre military establishment where his sole daily task is checking baked bean cans on a conveyor belt for quality. There’s no gathering wood or walking around a lake for him here: his is a controlled environment completely cut off from the outside world and functioning exclusively under grim artificial lighting. The inmates’ only pleasures in this factory are watching television - quite possibly Big Brother it - (him) - self, or going to organised dances where drinking heavily and having sex in public are considered perfectly normal. The only way  to survive here is  getting ratted on alcohol or drugs as quickly and as often as possible. Hmm....

Despite his stark institutionalised environment, and the growing ‘madness’ of desperation, Wozzeck strives valiantly to do the right thing, maintaining his girlfriend and their child by earning money from participating in bizarre dietary experiments for the frankly lunatic doctor and shaving the  weirdo Captain. He suffers the chain-smoking Captain’s taunts, constant mocking by his friends and betrayal by his child’s mother with the grotesquely macho Drum Major: none of them has the smallest shred of humanity left in them having sold out completely to the ‘system.’

Wozzeck, murderer and suicide though he turns out to be, is portrayed as simply reacting as any other desperate but healthy human being might, to an intolerable and bestial situation. Richard Jones’ great achievement (and a tribute both to revival director Benjamin Davis and his singer - actors) is that this fact becomes horrifyingly believable as the opera progresses.

After which, the music. Lothar Koenigs and the orchestra brought out the stark beauty of Berg’s enormously complicated score with a lucidity that I had never quite experienced before. This is obviously great music which clearly had a huge influence on many later composers. Its true genius however,  lies in its astonishingly skilled orchestration and its refusal ever to compromise the bleakness of the text by offering comfort or hinting at any kind of redemption. The score is beautiful but never even slightly hopeful and its strength is to compel attention from beginning to end, despite its anger and gloom. Lothar Koenigs' reading made every moment of it intensely interesting.

The singing was almost uniformly excellent. As ever, Christopher Purves’ beautiful and powerful voice was a joy to hear and, as usual, he combined his singing with an understanding and interpretation of his role which brought the whole experience into harmony. Wioletta Chodowicz was a strong Marie, with a powerful grip on the vocal demands of the score. Peter Hoare, Clive Bayley and Hubert Francis were chilling as the Captain,  Doctor and Drum Major respectively: they too were all in excellent voice.

This was a marvellously powerful evening of opera in which the interpretation, musicianship, direction and singing combined to make a memorable production of a profound work. It tours Llandudno, Oxford, Bristol, Birmingham and Southampton from October 15th. Go and see it if  you possibly can  - even though you'll risk never eating beans on toast again.

Bill Kenny

Picture © Bill Cooper

Footnote: By a strange coincidence, less than 12 hours after this review was posted, on Wednesday October 7th Google's front page marked the anniversary of the invention of the barcode.

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