Royal Opera House – Berg’s Wozzeck – with Christian Gerhaher, Anja Kempe & Peter Hoare; directed by Deborah Warner; conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano

Berg

Wozzeck – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer after the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner [sung in German with English surtitles]

Wozzeck – Christian Gerhaher
Marie – Anja Kampe
Captain – Peter Hoare
Doctor – Brindley Sherratt
Margret – Rosie Aldridge
Drum Major – Clay Hilley
Andres – Sam Furness
First Apprentice – Barnaby Rea
Second Apprentice – Alex Otterburn
The Fool – John Findon
Soldier – Lee Hickenbottom
Tenor Solo – Andrew Macnair

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano

Deborah Warner – Director
Hyemi Shin – Set Designer
Nicky Gillibrand – Costumes
Adam Silverman – Lighting
Kim Brandstrup – Choreographer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 19 May, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Following her acclaimed production of Peter Grimes for the Royal Opera House, as well as two other Britten operas before that with similarly troubled protagonists, Deborah Warner now turns her attention to Wozzeck, perhaps the seminal and still most modern treatment of the subject of the outsider in the operatic repertoire. Although Georg Büchner’s original play Woyzeck (unfinished at his death in 1837) and Berg’s opera (premiered in 1925) address the social and economic realities of their times, Warner’s interpretation adopts a less rigorous political analysis or critique than they or her own production of Peter Grimes. That said, something of the latter is almost seemingly reprised in the ragged, menacing group of drunken revellers in the tavern scene, or the platoon of soldiers among whom Wozzeck is seen asleep in a very dingy dormitory.

In general the set is sparse and the social reality in which Wozzeck and Marie are discovered is a scattered and splintered one, with the various scenes evoked with a minimum of furnishings and placed in the contemporary era as far as we can tell. It is as though we see the world through Wozzeck’s eyes, dissociated from its extraneous colour and paraphernalia which have ceased to have any meaning or relevant to him. Even before he sings, Christian Gerhaher enacts a compellingly benumbed, dehumanised Wozzeck, mechanically toiling and shuffling around, as though shellshocked or at least troublingly introspective. The turquoise overall he wears throughout suggests he is a cog in some economic or political machine, though we never really see what that is. Instead it is nature that hangs bleakly over the sequence of events (wild clouds, dark skies, a blood-red setting moon, and a row of bare trees suspended from above) ultimately intractable, and to which Wozzeck and Marie seem to fall victim rather than to any manmade system or social code, unsympathetic though the other characters generally are.

Implacable nature seems to be ironically posited by Warner here against the abstraction and metaphysics of Wozzeck’s ‘philosophising’ (he is taunted for that and ‘thinking too much’ several times in the opera). She also uses irony visually at other points to underscore the tragic squalor of Wozzeck’s situation – at the opening as he cleans the floors around the toilets and washbasins, the Captain slithers over them while opining upon such grand themes as eternity and morals; when the Doctor dreams of the immortality that his medical experiments will bring him, he sets about embalming a corpse. And as Wozzeck and Marie sit in near darkness before the red evening sky, dissecting with grim, anti-romantic ardour the state of their failed relationship which Wozzeck is about to terminate murderously, Warner seems to reference sardonically the metaphysical night of love in Act Two of Tristan und Isolde.

In his singing Gerhaher realises Wozzeck’s emotional detachment with a fine, reserved eloquence, issuing at times with only an effete rage and violence (until his stabbing of Marie) which makes the role all the more disturbing. By contrast, Anja Kampe creates a bold, whimsical range of vocal colour and human feelings as Marie, conveying the gamut of emotions – from joy, hope, and love, to anxiety, despair, and pain – which Wozzeck has become incapable of feeling any longer. Between them they embody the two emotional poles around which the work revolves, and to which the other characters seem merely incidental.

Peter Hoare’s Captain and Brindley Sherratt’s Doctor provide a similarly effective, contrasting pair, the former by turns whingeingly snarling and ingratiating, the latter dryly severe and stern. Clay Hilley is a rightly overweening Drum Major, gauchely revelling in his lustful success with Marie, while Rosie Aldridge’s Margret is almost comically shrill in her slanging match with Marie from their respective apartment windows, as she berates the latter for her lax morality.

Antonio Pappano conducts the ROH Orchestra in an account of the score which often quietly shimmers and shifts around, providing a wealth of tonal clarity as different instruments comment on the action. But it only really skates over the surface of the music, so that it perhaps often sounds like a somewhat more harmonically pungent version of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande – rather than uncovering the score’s darker undercurrents, there is a veneer which feels too settled and tends to preclude a more tense, nervous dynamism. Almost immediate applause from one audience member before the last chord had fallen silent seemed to confirm a sense of deflation instead of shaking one out of what should be a more shattering, unsettling musical experience. But the production itself otherwise draws one in to Wozzeck’s alienated, deracinated psychology – as a character almost reduced to a non-person, Gerhaher brings captivating charisma.  

Further performances to June 7

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