Friday 24 May 2013

Wozzeck - ENO @ The Coliseum

With many opera companies rehashing the same Mozart, Verdi and Puccini operas time after time, it’s pleasing to see ENO taking some risks.  Berg’s Wozzeck was last performed at the Coliseum over twenty years ago and in this production many of the principals are making their ENO debuts, let alone director Carrie Cracknell.  It’s hardly a crowd-pleaser, but this is an incredibly brave production.

That daring begins with Cracknell’s setting.  Transported to present day, this production is heavily influenced by post-traumatic stress disorder seen in men who fought in the Middle East.  It brings a new relevance to the piece for modern audiences, Wozzeck’s madness now a frightening and very real possibility.  Moreover, dressed in an England football shirt (and of course singing in English), the action is brought to our shores in a bleak, kitchen-sink drama of social realism.  Tom Scutt’s set design is laid out like a gritty, decaying dolls house, with Wozzeck’s visions bathed in a feverish yellow glow.  Undeniably this is a corrupt underworld, with the relationship between Wozzeck and his wife Marie frosty to say the least.  Their marriage is doomed from the start.

This change of setting does bring some problems, however, with anachronisms aplenty between the libretto and the stage action.  The libretto is filled with philosophical and religious musings that don’t quite sound right coming from the mouths of modern day characters.  Wozzeck’s madness could explain the disconnect, for example in the final death scene, yet it’s also a thinly-veiled conceit.  As a result, the audience are asked to suspend their disbelief on numerous occasions, which somewhat undermines the realism the setting strives to achieve.

Flaws aside, as a piece of expressionist music-drama, Wozzeck has undeniable power.  This is a truly organic opera where music and drama are in total unity, the orchestra and singers rising and falling together with each swell of emotion.  The melodies are far from typical lyricism, but the raw expression is as lucid as the libretto is obtuse.  To that end, the performances are excellent: from Leigh Melrose’s portrayal of the troubled title role, to Sara Jakubiak’s warm soprano as Marie, and Bryan Register’s sleazy Drum Major.  The night belongs to conductor Ed Gardiner, however, somehow keeping the orchestra, singers and drama seamlessly under control.

Wozzeck is a terrifying journey into the avant garde; a bleak, intense opera with a gut-wrenching climax.  It might not always be believable or easily comprehended, but it’s impossible not to be swept along by its overwhelming wave of emotion.


Watch: Wozzeck runs until 25th May at the Coliseum.