Berg: Wozzeck

Welsh National Opera

New Theatre, Oxford, 9 November 20095 stars

Christopher PurvesWozzeck is not an opera for everyone, as the people who left after the first scene – a full twelve minutes into Thursday night's show – will testify. However you package it, it remains a bleak tale of madness, exploitation and infidelity that opens with despair and ends with death. Many of the most successful productions of recent years however (I'm thinking particularly of Keith Warner's now legendary 2002 Wozzeck for the Royal Opera House) have gained their impact precisely by embracing the work's abrasive angularity, rather than attempting to smooth over its sharper edges. Richard Jones' revived staging for WNO does precisely this, creating a compellingly claustrophobic world of automata, whose humanising instincts and urges have long since been sacrificed to the bland efficiency of life's ever-moving production line.

The curtain opens to reveal what appears to be the wooden interior of a packing case, closed on all sides. This frame serves to shape both the baked-bean factory where Wozzeck works, and the doctor's surgery and Captain's office where he gains he extra money – the one-size-fits-all landscape of a world where beauty and particularity have been annihilated. Present in every scene, and growing parasitically until it fills the greater part of the stage, is an orange skip filled with the empty bean cans that constitute Wozzeck's prescribed diet. Our hero is quite literally weighed down by the detritus of society, its pressure ultimately killing both him and Marie as the sharp edges of the tins are applied to wrists and throat.

Thesee tins become the central idée fixe of the production, their shiny menace appearing in various forms, most notably arranged in rows upon towering shelves that dwarf that human drama taking place around them. The deliberately faded palate of the opera, its workers in beige, helps bring the rare touches of colour into focus: the bright red of the Drum Major's shirt echoed ominously in Marie's dress and ultimately the red moon that spells Wozzeck's doom. Paul Steinberg's design is both functional and playful, although its divergence from the literal landscape so clearly evoked in the text occasionally causes unnecessarily jarring moments. What is pleasing however is the extent to which onstage drama and musical characterisation are integrated; the many programmatic touches in Berg's score can be overlooked without real damage to a production, but when referenced and echoed on stage, create a deeply satisfying and effective whole.

Christopher PurvesWhile there are some operatic title roles that are less than pivotal – Jenufa, Artaxerxes and Turandot come to mind – there are others so dominant that the work lives or dies with them. Wozzeck, together with the likes of Tosca and Otello, is one such, so when it transpired that due to illness Christopher Purves would not be singing there was some uneasy stirring from the audience. Any fears however were more than allayed by Alexander Ashworth, who brought such security and dramatic conviction to the role that any sense of him as a substitute was forgotten. His physical stature – towering over all the rest of the cast – gave a real pathos to his portrayal of Wozzeck as an overgrown man-child, whose innocence condemns him to madness in the corrupt world of the Doctors and Drum Majors. Such an interpretation went far to explaining the bizarre sexual dynamic between Wozzeck and the neglected Marie, and the few physical embraces they shared took on a sense almost of parent and child, rather than of lovers. Vocally Ashworth felt a little underpowered, but this might have been the fault of the theatre, its lack of orchestra pit causing familiar issues of balance. While not all his lines were clear there was a fragility and a tenderness to his softer delivery that worked dramatically, given the sense of a character so crushed and humbled that even this most basic self-expression is muted.

His delicate passivity worked well in conjunction with Wioletta Chodowicz' magnificently full-blooded Marie. Providing one of the most satisfying vocal experiences of the night, she also managed to marry the very different aspects of her role – tender mother and misguided slut – convincingly, no small achievement in the space of so comparatively short a work.

In Clive Bayley's Doctor we had the most sinisterly genial grandfather-type. His comfortably full tones (showed off to even better advantage currently in ENO's Bluebeard's Castle) were tempered with much non-pitched inflection, giving him a certain unpredictability and menace. Similarly disturbing was Graham Clark's deranged Captain, whose energy was channelled into a grinning chain-smoking figure seemingly escaped from among the freaks of Isherwood's Cabaret.

Despite the superb onstage action, the laurels for the evening must surely go to Lothar Koenigs and the WNO orchestra. Berg's score is as delicious as it is difficult, shifting from fragmented bursts and explosions of textural and rhythmic colour, to passages of quasi-Mahlerian melodic angst. With the opera's many scenes defined and shaped by their musical form – a series of inventions on chords, themes and even on a single note – it is crucial for the opera's success that these distinct characteristics are brought out and clearly defined. Balancing this clarity with a understated emotional sincerity, the orchestra produced a performance that drove the onstage drama, by turns shocking and soothing the audience with its uncompromising delivery. Particularly striking was the blend from the lower strings, whose dark warmth provided a perfect foil to the acid bright interjections of the brass. In so deliberately fragmented a work it falls to the orchestra to provide the emotional and atmospheric core, to guide the audience between the scenes without losing focus or succumbing to too severe a bout of Germanic alienation. In Oxford's New Theatre, which lacks an orchestra pit, the sheer proximity of the instruments (so often a nightmare for balance) actually added to their impact, allowing the audience to see and appreciate the sheer extent of Berg's forces, and the equal role that they take in relation to the singers.

Intelligent, disturbing and deeply moving – this is opera as it can and should be. As far as food for thought goes, you can't currently do better than WNO's Wozzeck and his baked beans.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Photo Credits: Bill Cooper


StemmeRelated articles:

Interview Elizabeth Watts on Artaxerxes
Interview Antonio Pappano on conducting Christof Loy's Lulu
Opera Review Christof Loy's Lulu at Covent Garden (May '09)
Opera Review Bryn Terfel Wagner's Flying Dutchman at Royal Opera House