The Royal Opera – Wozzeck [Goerne & Dalayman]

Wozzeck [an opera in three acts with libretto by the composer after the play by Georg Büchner]

Wozzeck – Matthias Goerne
Marie – Katarina Dalayman
Captain – Graham Clark
Doctor – Eric Halfvarson
Drum Major – Kim Begley
Andres – Alasdair Elliott
Margret – Claire Powell
Half-wit – Francis Egerton
First Apprentice – Jeremy White
Second Apprentice – Quentin Hayes
Child – Jacob Moriarty

Keith Warner – director
Stefanos Lazaridis – sets
Marie-Jeanne Lecca – costumes
Rick Fisher – lighting

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 October, 2002
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The one truly Modernist opera to have entered the general repertory, Wozzeck has enjoyed a number of significant productions at The Royal Opera, this being the first for 18 years, for which the ROH has reduced ticket prices. And, with its fine balance between formal complexity and emotional directness, it’s a pertinent test for Antonio Pappano, in only his second production as the company’s new Music Director.

Scenically, the impact of Wozzeck depends on amalgamating the personal and ’everyman’ qualities that define the opera’s anti-hero. If nothing new conceptually, Keith Warner’s treatment of the main character as a ’living specimen’ is effected with telling simplicity: Wozzeck as a loose canon under the glare of the social microscope. Enhancing this approach is Stefanos Lazaridis’s main set – a cavernous white-tiled laboratory, akin to thatwhich dominates the final sequence of Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”, an overpowering neutrality which effortlessly serves the varying stage requirements.

Specimen cabinets – housing Wozzeck’s hallucinatory toadstools and the Doctor’s gory assemblage of body parts – are moved in and out of focus pointedly yet unobtrusively, all the while complementing the musical action. The domestic interior downstage-left – complete with bed and upright piano – provided a claustrophobic setting for the deteriorating relationship between Wozzeck and Marie, and doubled effectively as an amusement space in Act Two, though a ’sitter’ was missed in not making it the setting for the tavern scene in Act Three; instead, the opened-out perspective and ’out of focus’ de-tuned piano needlessly diluted its effectiveness. Taken overall, however, this is contemporary staging that served, rather than distracted, from the opera.

As heard on the opening night, the cast was committed if uneven. Matthias Goerne, still known primarily as a Lieder exponent, is a Wozzeck in the Fischer-Dieskau mould. Shaping phrases with a fastidious care for tonal production, there was nothing underpowered about his performance – which moved convincingly from earnest bemusement, to bitter disillusion, then to mental derangement with each Act. His performing was similarly lucid and involved – whether in his humiliating confrontations with the Captain and Doctor, or his stylised murder of Marie. His subsequent climbing and absorption into a waiting specimen cabinet was a stunning ’coup de theatre’ which held attention throughout the ensuing orchestral interlude, making it a true visual and musical apotheosis.

As Marie, Katarina Dalayman initially seemed unsure how far to play up the frustrated housewife, how far the latent sex-pot. Awkward in her lullaby scene and initial encounter with the Drum Major, she commanded attention in her confrontations with Wozzeck in Act Two, while her bitter remorse in the Bible-reading scene which opens Act Three was judged to a nicety. Graham Clark’s semi-cripple of a Captain was charismatic but alarmingly approximate in pitch, unlike the securely-sung mock-rationale of Eric Halfvarson’s Doctor. Kim Begley’s Drum Major had the appropriate macho bravado, with Alasdair Elliott a concerned but exasperated Andres, and Francis Egerton’s unworldly cameo as the Half-wit a telling foil to the main protagonist.

With productions of operas by composers as different as Britten and Philippe Boesmans to his credit when at La Monnaie in Brussels, Antonio Pappano’s credentials in post-war opera are well established. Taking on an orchestra left in excellent shape by Bernard Haitink, his conducting of Wozzeck has exemplary control and finesse – but, at least in Act One, too little sense of cumulative theatrical intensity. In particular, the ’Passacaglia’ that remorselessly underpins the Doctor’s ravings in Scene Four proceeded as a sequence of sharply-defined but disconnected vignettes.

Similarly, the ’Fantasia and Fugue’ that powers the interplay of Scene Two in the following Act gelled only on the surface, and yet the aural and theatrical intimacy of the ensuing ’Largo’ scene was magically conveyed; motifs and gestures criss-crossing with absolute certainty of musical motion. The culminatory interlude in Act Three was attentively and powerfully shaped, and if the visual potency of the final scene was lessened by reducing all of the children except Wozzeck’s and Marie’s child to fleeting offstage voices – we need to see them in context as the ’uncomprehending poor’ of tomorrow – the artless poignancy of the music came through undiminished.

With a further five performances in which to tighten those aspects which need intensifying, this should prove to be an engrossing and, in the deeper sense, provocative production of Berg’s opera – reaffirming its musical relevance and theatrical potency for a new century, as well as giving notice of an all-round aesthetic focus to a new era at the Royal Opera.

  • Further performances on October 21, 23 and 31 at 7.30; and on October 26 at 7 o’clock (also live on BBC Radio 3)
  • Box Office – 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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