The unfinished play Wozzeck, on which Alban Berg’s opera is based, was written in 1837 by Georg Büchner, a German medical student who died from typhus that same year at the age of 23. Berg conceived the opera in 1914 after seeing a performance of the play, but its composition was interrupted by the First World War and was not completed until 1921. It is an uncompromising and densely orchestrated opera written in 15 scenes and normally presented in three acts.
The present production however is played without a break, lasting one and three-quarter hours in all. This is the first production of Wozzeck at the ROH since 1984 and is here set on a large, essentially bare stage surrounded by tall, white mildew-stained tiled walls suggestive of a morgue. Four large Perspex display tanks, akin to Damien Hurst’s formalin specimen cabinets, glide about the stage – each highlighted at appropriate points in the action when the contents are relevant. One contains only clear water and plays an essential part in the deaths of Wozzeck and his common law wife, Marie.
At the front and to one side of the stage is Marie’s bedroom. She has a child by Wozzeck, born out of wedlock, and in this production the little boy is about eight years old and present on stage throughout as an observer of the action. Since this involves physical violence, rape and the eventual slitting of his mother’s throat, and his father’s death by drowning, I am surprised that the young actor Jacob Moriarty is subjected to all this trauma. Ironically the Opera House publicity warns that this production is not suitable for children!
In both the play and Berg’s opera, Wozzeck is a soldier of lowly rank and intelligence who is forced to submit to the sadistic and humiliating actions of his superiors. Already suffering from hallucinations, his sanity finally deserts him when he discovers that Marie has succumbed to the advances of the Drum Major. He stabs her to death and drowns himself.
The director Keith Warner portrays Wozzeck not as a soldier but as a poor exploited worker who appears to be psychotic from the start. Berg, I am sure, intended him to be an oppressed simpleton who slides into madness, rather than a psychopath. This detracts from the sympathy which should be engendered by this poor man’s plight, as well as being at odds with the barrack room brutality envisaged by both author and composer.
The production, sets and lighting are brilliantly conceived but the horror is unremitting, with little trace of humanity. Stage effects such as the cutting of Marie’s throat over the water tank with the resulting reddening of the water, followed soon after by Wozzeck’s drowning in the same water, are horribly realistic.
The singing of the entire cast was superlative, as was the playing of the ROH orchestra under the baton of Antonio Pappano who, with this production and that of the recent Ariadne auf Naxos, has made a most auspicious start to his tenure of the post of musical director at Covent Garden. Matthias Goerne, a bear of a man, sang and acted brilliantly but failed to move me due, I suspect, to the director’s interpretation of the role.
Marie was sung by Katarina Dalayman not as a sexy seductress but as a bespectacled Fraulein. She, along with Eric Halfvarson as the doctor, Graham Clark as the Captain and Kim Begley as the Drum Major, was distinguished in her role, coping faultlessly with the Sprechstimme (best described as ‘musically defined speech’) which Berg uses throughout.
This whole project was a credit to the ROH and bodes well for the future of the company. Incidentally their decision to reduce the price of the seats for these performances of Wozzeck was an obvious success as I have seldom seen so many young adults in the Covent Garden audience.