Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

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):