14 May 2013

Wozzeck at ENO

“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.

But, even the darkest most abject tragedies have, by definition, the power to uplift, salve and redeem. Our spirits are plunged to the most terrible depths, yet our terrified souls are ultimately cleansed by some ultimate beauty which perhaps cannot be defined but whose capacity to purify is discerned and experienced.

Carrie Cracknell’s striking new production of Berg’s bleak opera is a tragedy without catharsis or succour. Situating the unfolding misery in a shabby army barracks in modern Britain, Cracknell presents us with unsentimental, gritty realism and domestic suffering, enriched by imaginative theatrical details. Wozzeck is a poor private driven into despair and then madness by impoverishment, betrayal and guilt. He kills his wife, and then himself, their lifeless bodies, slumped like rag-dolls across a scuffed kitchen table, a painful image of futility and senselessness. There is no universal atonement.

The wretchedness unfolds relentlessly across the levels of designer Tom Scutt’s highly effective three-level set. The cheerless private living quarters are permanently visible above the public goings-on in the ground floor mess, thereby emphasising that the horror and inanity of war is responsible for the destruction of human dignity. Indeed, Cracknell makes much of the military context; soldiers in combat gear stand astride the stage, smoking, posturing, challenging the audience before curtain rise. Union-draped coffins return home but are awarded little respect, as the women prefer to bestow their shameless attentions on the living rather than direct their compassion to the fallen.

Wozzeck--Leigh_Melrose--Bryan_Register.gifLeigh Melrose as Wozzeck and Bryan Register as Drum Major

Certainly one should not under-estimate the impact of Berg’s own experiences of war - he enlisted in August 1915 - on this opera, and they may have encouraged him to empathise with the oppressed soldier of Büchner's play. But, Berg show Wozzeck as a man who is both a poor squaddie and a visionary, and his tragedy is - like that of Peter Grimes - that he cannot reconcile these two opposing identities. Cracknell’s Wozzeck is a man undone by the revulsion and responsibilities of war, which hound and haunt him - mingled with the hallucinatory torments caused by the Doctor’s psychedelic chemical experimentations. But, the director offers little sense of the visionary dimension, of the Wozzeck who is more than a representative of the oppressed class - ‘die arme Leute’; the Wozzeck who is ‘outside’ conventional mores.

The effects of this are most noticeable in the closing moments when the decision to confine the drama within the domestic interior deprives us of the pathos of the moonlit lake where Wozzeck desperately tries to purify his soul, by committing suicide in the very waters where he has washed the blood from the lethal knife. (It also makes a nonsense of the translated surtitles). Yet, what better expresses Wozzeck's ultimate alienation and estrangement than the gentle sounds of nature - namely the indifferent croaking of the frogs as he drowns in the lake upon whose shore lies Marie’s condemnatory corpse.

In Berg’s final scene, the child of Wozzeck and Marie is seen playing, enjoying what will be his final moments of innocence, unaware of the tragedy which has ensued; but in Cracknell’s production Harry Polden creeps past the bloodied bodies - with shocking dignity and composure - to the courtyard.

As Wozzeck, Leigh Melrose is at once introverted and authoritative. A man trapped in own mind, plagued and piqued by images of innocence ravaged, he is as physically enfeebled as he is mentally besieged. It is clear that his obsessive love for the unworthy Marie is both a tantalising path to deliverance and his ultimate, inevitable route to destruction. At times an inert, frail figure, Melrose focuses all his authority into his voice, conveying a huge range of psychological states and dimensions. Both he and his Marie, the American soprano Sara Jakubiak, are moving without lapsing into sentimentality.
Jakubiak finds huge resources of passion and piercing anger, conveying the savagery of her desires and distress. Yet, conversely, she captures Marie’s unobtrusive yet undoubted emergent remorse, culminating in a sudden realization of her culpability which confirms her inescapable haplessness and lack of hope.

Berg’s monstrous Captain and Doctor can seem outlandish caricatures and Cracknell certainly piles on the grotesque twitches and manias. Tom Randle’s swaggering Captain, his steroid-derived muscles etched with livid tattoos, runs a neat side-line in drugs-trafficking, concealing his mind-numbing powders and capsules in garish children’s toys. James Morris’s egregious, despotic Doctor, meanwhile, finds the likes of Wozzeck and his friend Andres (Adrian Dwyer) - a wheelchair-bound veteran who numbs the pain of reality by retreating into the world of computer games and cyber hostilities - a willing workforce, ready to endure his experiments and chemical confections for small change.

Both Morris and Randle presented unequivocally committed performances of vicious vitality; in common with the entire cast, they delivered Richard Stokes’ translation with unfailingly clarity. During the diverse, loosely connected dialogue of the opening scene, they used body and voice to transfix us in fascination at their foulness; throughout they ambushed all with their ghastly diversions, Morris thundering imposingly forth while Randle unleashed some terrifying falsetto shrieks.

Edward Gardner drew a performance of astonishing lyrical intensity from the orchestra of English National Opera, in a rich, Romantic reading of almost Mahlerian elegy. He used the intimate quality of much of the score to throw the interludes into powerful relief, crafting the latter so that they steadily gained in dramatic significance and emotional potency. Such luscious opulence may have been a little at odds with the stark bleakness of the on-stage action, but Gardner’s acute awareness of the minutiae of the disciplined structure units from which the score is built provided a controlled counterpoint to the escalation of abnormal psychological intensity.

The penetrating tone which, following Marie’s murder, twice surges from a troubling pianissimo tremor to a captivating, apocalyptic boom, was electrifying in its primitive grandeur. At the moment of death some believe that all the important occurrences of one’s life pass rapidly and in distortion through one’s mind; and here, we seemed to experience both the self-consuming fire of Marie’s death, and Wozzeck’s terrifying realization of his own vileness.

Sir Thomas Beecham detested Berg’s opera, calling it “the most horrible opera in the world”. Cracknell offered little to alleviate the horror but much to inspire admiration.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Wozzeck: Leigh Melrose; Marie: Sara Jakubiak; Captain: Tom Randle; Doctor: James Morris; Drum Major: Bryan Register; Andres: Adrian Dwyer; Margret: Clare Presland; First Apprentice: Andrew Greenan; Second Apprentice: James Cleverton; Madman: Peter van Hulle; Marie’s Child: Harry Polden; Carrie Cracknell: director; Edward Gardner: conductor; Tom Scutt: set designs; Oliver Townsend and Naomi Wilkinson: costumes; Jon Clarke: lighting; Ann Yee: choreography; Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Saturday 11th May 2013.