Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The Tempest Songbook, Gotham Chamber Opera

Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.

San Diego Opera presents Adams’ Riveting Nixon in China

Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.

Ars Minerva presents Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra in San Francisco

It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Tosca in Marseille

Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.

Poetry beyond words — Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.

Arizona Opera Presents Magritte Style Magic Flute

On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.

Die Meistersinger and The Indian Queen
at the ENO

It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Royal Opera

At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Barbican, London

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?

Welsh National Opera: The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel

Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.

Double bill at Guildhall

Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.

LA Opera: Barber of Seville

Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me … I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera presents an excellent Don Giovanni

On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Sara Jakubiak as Marie [Photo by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera]
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.

Wozzeck at ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sara Jakubiak as Marie

Photos by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera

 

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):