Deborah Warner pulls no punches in her brilliant, audacious production of one of the 20th century’s most important works for the stage, which is also impeccably sung and faultlessly conducted.
One might be forgiven for thinking that stories about those marginalised in society – the outsiders – are something new, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Büchner’s bleak play about a tormented soldier was written in the 1830s, when one imagines those individuals on the fringes of society were treated differently, but has much changed since then?
Apparently not – well not in Deborah Warner’s shatteringly audacious new staging of Berg’s masterpiece in any case. She shines a brutal spotlight on the fragility and cruelty of human existence, devoid of compassion or empathy, where a series of characters try to find their way in an unforgiving and unwelcoming world. It all sounds pretty grim, and generally it is. No one goes to a performance of Wozzeck expecting an ‘enjoyable’ night out at the opera, yet a century after its first performance that shook an unsuspecting Berlin audience to its very core, Berg’s seminal work for the stage still packs an enormous theatrical punch. It’s one of those very rare operas that never fails to startle, despite being familiar with the score, and having seen it many times. And you can’t say that about a lot of operas.
Taking as her starting point the numerous references to bodily fluids and functions that pepper the libretto, before a note is even heard we see a group of soldiers pissing in the filthy barracks’ latrines. Goading Wozzeck, and humiliating him as he cleans up their mess, his position in the pecking order is immediately established. And from that moment on he’s treated mercilessly by everyone he encounters – the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major – and even his lover, Marie. These self-obsessed grotesques show no compassion or remorse, so it comes as no surprise that Wozzeck is pushed over the edge to commit murder.
At 100 minutes, Wozzeck is short compared to most operas, but Berg’s opera lends itself to a cinematic treatment, which it gets here thanks to the fluidity of the stage pictures, effortlessly brought to life by Hyemi Shin’s set designs and Adam Silverman’s exquisite lighting plot. Neither realistic nor expressionist, the staging somehow treads a line between the two, creating a surreal landscape that provides the perfect backdrop for the opera’s numerous scenes. Nicky Gillibrand’s contemporary costumes complement the staging perfectly, adding an immediacy to the proceedings that’s deeply unsettling.
“It’s one of those very rare operas that never fails to startle…”
In the title role Christian Gerhaher brought a wealth of lieder experience to his performance, sang thrillingly throughout and caught the character’s pathos to perfection. His diction, as you’d expect, was exemplary, and he found exactly the right colours for Berg’s exacting vocal lines. As his lover Marie, Anja Kampe was in sovereign voice, singing with Wagnerian splendour, and she acted the role as if her life depended on it – it was good to see her back on the Covent Garden stage after too long an absence. Peter Hoare and Brindley Sherratt were suitably repellent as the Captain and the Doctor, although both of them were wholly absorbed in Berg’s musical idiom and were equally at home in the sprechstimme as they were in the more melodic episodes. Clay Hilley used his clarion tenor to telling effect as the Drum Major, while all the supporting roles were cast from strength – especially Barnaby Rea’s sepulchrally-voiced First Apprentice who made an auspicious house debut, and Sam Furness’ lyrical Andres.
In the pit Antonio Pappano led a blistering account of this miraculous score, highlighting the score’s modernity and abrasiveness, rather than its lyricism. Having said that, the final interlude following Wozzeck’s drowning glowed with a Mahlerian intensity and was a majestic climax to everything that had gone before. The orchestra covered itself in glory with playing of fervid intensity that gripped the audience, which listened in total silence, from start to finish.
One left the theatre feeling shell-shocked – as one invariably does after a performance of Wozzeck – but perhaps even more so than usual, given all the elements, singing, staging and playing had coalesced to create an evening of unforgiving intensity. There are only four performances left – miss it at your peril.
• Details of future performances can be found here.