This production of Wozzeck, winner of the 2002 Olivier Award, shows what operatic direction should be all about, which is enabling singers to convey the composer’s musical thoughts in a way which illuminates but does not distort; if you haven’t already booked, off you go to the Royal Opera House site where you’ll find that the four remaining performances all have some good seats left. Keith Warner’s production and Stefanos Lazaridis’ designs evoke the harshness of the lives of these ‘arme Leut’ whilst still emphasizing the power of the imagination, and are allied to a fine cast and orchestral playing of incandescent power.
Janáček described Berg’s notes as having been “dipped in blood,” and this startling phrase kept coming to mind when listening to the orchestra: Mark Elder goes for a much more visceral, much less poetic reading than that of Pappano in 2002, the strings more jarring and the grand D minor lament more anguished. Interestingly, the protagonists displayed those characteristics in reverse; Simon Keenlyside was an introspective, soft-toned Wozzeck, his urbanity only just beneath the surface, whereas Matthias Goerne in 2002 was a frighteningly obtuse, shambling figure who rose to heights of fervent declamation. Keenlyside’s performance was uniformly appealing, but that of Goerne – especially in the management of the Sprechstimme – searing.
Karita Mattila’s Marie was equally contrasting with her 2002 predecessor; where Katarina Dalayman was steel-edged in both voice and presence, Mattila’s much fuller tone and natural elegance of manner made for a generally beautiful sound but a less convincing character. Endrick Wottrich was a grimly credible Drum Major, his heroic voice ideal in this music, and John Tomlinson surprisingly apt casting as a less-than-usually sadistic Doctor. Gerhard Siegel, making his ROH role debut, sang the Captain with ringing tone and unforced characterization. Robin Tritschler, making his house debut, was a touching and credible ‘knarr.’ The ROH chorus members sounded a bit refined for a rowdy lot in a military town.
For those who have not seen this production before, the contrast between the grim, white-tiled asylum and the sparse family home, the vivid back-scenes of Marie lying against an azure sky, the depiction of the blood-red moon, and of course Wozzeck’s horrible death will all be revelatory, and those who are re-visiting it will find that nothing has lost the power to shock. The day to day brutality and the crassness of a miserable existence made bearable by the sweetness of a love which is inevitably betrayed, are all as vivid as ever. The poor little boy – heart-rendingly portrayed by Sebastian Wright – is left alone at the end, just as Madame Bovary’s child is left to face an unkind world; it is all bitter nothingness, and it might as well be faced. There probably is a positive Wozzeck somewhere out there, complete with decorative AK47s or staged in a Downton Abbey style drawing room, but we can live without it.