Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

O19’s Phat Philly Phantasy

It is hard to imagine a more animated, engaging, and musically accomplished night at the Academy of Music than with Opera Philadelphia’s winning new staging of The Love for Three Oranges.

Agrippina: Barrie Kosky brings farce and frolics to the ROH

She makes a virtue of her deceit, her own accusers come to her defence, and her crime brings her reward. Agrippina - great-granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, sister of Caligula, wife of Emperor Claudius - might seem to offer those present-day politicians hungry for power an object lesson in how to satisfy their ambition.

Billy Budd in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera’s Billy Budd confirms once again that Britten’s reworking of Melville’s novella is among the great masterpieces of the repertory. It boasted an exemplary cast in an exemplary production, and enlightened conducting.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Simon Keenlyside As Wozzeck and Karita Mattila as Marie [Photo © ROH/ Catherine Ashmore]
01 Nov 2013

Wozzeck, Royal Opera

The lustreless white tiles of the laboratory which forms the set of Keith Warner’s pitiless staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck offer little respite — cold, hard, rigid and severe, they are a material embodiment of the bleakness and barrenness of the tragic events which will be played out within the workshop walls (sets by Stefanos Lazaridis).

Wozzeck, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Simon Keenlyside As Wozzeck and Karita Mattila as Marie

Photos © ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

 

Only Marie’s small, shabby bedroom, to the front left, provide some respite from the unalleviated soullessness.

First seen in 2002, winner of an Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production in 2003, and revived in 2005, Warner’s staging asks much of its personnel. The institutional grimy white is transmuted only occasionally by a black triangular shape which descends from the flies, and by the mirrored wall onto which Wozzeck’s mysterious hallucinations are projected (lighting design, Rick Fisher); this single-set offers little assistance to the singer who must convey Wozzeck’s misery and oppression as, ever more humiliated and betrayed, his world shrinks to become a claustrophobic prison of mental confinement.

Buchner’s Wozzeck is deeply affected by the natural world, but here there are no external locales, no mists or rising suns, no eerie moonlight; the toad-stalls which so disturb Wozzeck — small, delicate rings, wondrously inscrutable beneath the arching, glittering constellations above — are here giant-sized, contained within one of four the clinical glass tanks in which the Doctor conducts his experiments.

In Warner’s concept we seem to be within Wozzeck’s own mind — a mind which is already unhinged at the start of the opera. It’s certainly the case that by the end of Berg’s opera we see, and hear, the world through Wozzeck’s perspective: the lullaby which the bar maid sings to Wozzeck when he stumbles into the tavern after his horrific act; the deafening, hysterical cries of the crowd, ‘Blood! Blood!’, when his crime is discovered; the rising parallel scales as Wozzeck sinks to his depths of the pool of water in which he strives in vain to rinse the bloodstains from his hands — all of these musical details present us with a world seen through Wozzeck’s eyes, a world distorted by his own obsessions and fears. But, we need the context to appreciate this warped subjective vision. The grotesques with which Berg presents us are not simply caricatures, or abstractions of cruelty, they are representatives of the selfish, heartless ruling class, one that subjugates the less fortunate, forcing them into financial and moral impoverishment. This is the society that defeats the humble Wozzeck, a member of the oppressed under-class, who is driven to commit murder by his poverty and powerless.

Wozzeck_ROH_03.gifSimon Keenlyside as Wozzeck and John Tomlinson as Doctor

Baritone Simon Keenlyside is an experienced veteran in the title role - this year alone he has already performed the part in Vienna, Madrid and Munich - but in some ways he might be thought too physically suave and composed to convince as the mentally ravaged soldier. But, Keenlyside showed us the psychological rawness while maintaining the essence of Wozzeck’s humanity, the beauty of the vocal lines drawing us into his confusion, the variations of colour and nuance revealing the depth of that bewilderment. The lightness of his baritone contrasted effectively with the Doctor’s deep bass, emphasising further Wozzeck’s defencelessness; progressively dehumanised, rendered ever more inarticulate, Keenlyside evoked a powerful sense of Grimes-like alienation from those around him. His interactions with his child, played with acuity by Sebastian Wright, were painfully poignant.

Keenlyside’s voice is essentially lyrical and herein lies a small misgiving though, for the eloquence of the vocal lines was sometimes at odds with the primitive brutality of the experience. The baritone, in common with virtually all the cast, doesn’t make much of the Sprechstimme but some vocal ‘roughness’ is needed to project the tragedy of this “psychotic anti-hero” (Derek Jarman). The contrast of lyrical and half-spoken utterance can be deeply expressive, as in the drowning scene in Act 3 when, as he desperately searches for the murder weapon, Wozzeck’s Sprechstimme ‘All is still and dead’ contrasts with his ferocious shouts of ‘Murder’. ‘Who cried?’ he wonders, then realises that it was he himself who spoke; the different vocal idioms reveal a destructive fragmentation of both body and psyche, one which is made more poignant when Wozzeck then sings tenderly over Marie’s dead body: ‘Marie! What is that crimson necklace you’re wearing? Was that well-earned, or sinful, just like the earrings?’ Has he really forgotten what he has done?

Singing the role of Marie for the first time, Karita Matilla sang with typical fearlessness and passion. However, though dressed in a cheap floral frock and hiding her own blond hair beneath a grubby brown wig, Matilla perhaps retained rather too much of her natural poise and grace, her tone too consistently sensuous and alluring for a rough and ready adulteress. The silky high notes in her prayer scene were truly beautiful though, and in Act 3 Matilla’s declamations were full of urgency and anguish.

Wozzeck_ROH_04.gifSimon Keenlyside as Wozzeck and Endrik Wottrich as Drum Major

John Tomlinson’s Doctor was no cartoon-esque ‘mad scientist’, but rather a cruel, callous manipulator, for whom each and every man and woman is a potential medical specimen, ripe for merciless experiment, no more deserving of compassion that a shark in formaldehyde. Tomlinson acted the part of the obsessive maniac superbly, although the vocal performance was a little uneven.

The Doctor’s hideous duet with the Captain, Gerhard Siegel, was appropriately ghastly, a masterpiece of caricature, the magnification of abnormality verging on madness which they use to control and exploit Wozzeck. Siegel relished the Captain’s idiocies, formidably establishing his moral vacuity in the opening scene with Wozzeck, his tenor muscular and strong as he rambled interminably about his superior intellect and status, spouting empty-headed philosophical sound-bites.

Endrik Wottrich’s Drum Major sounded a little strained, but his steely tone suited the callousness of the abusive lecher, and he acted well. John Easterlin might have made more impact as Andres, Wozzeck’s companion; his folky huntsman’s song in Scene 2 should ideally contrast more strikingly with Wozzeck’s eerie Sprechstimme utterances, indicating the schism that separates these supposed friends. Allison Cook (Margret) and Robin Tritschler (Half-Wit) performed well in their cameo roles, and Jeremy White and Grant Doyle acquitted themselves ably as the First and Second Apprentice respectively. The ROH chorus were rather genteel for a crowd of soldiers, workers and revelers who have not yet had the life spirit syringed out of them by the Doctor.

One of the most discomforting and expressively provocative aspects of this production is that the blank desolation of the sets is completely at odds with the expressive richness of Berg’s score. And, in Mark Elder’s hands this disjuncture proved even more shocking as the conductor drew orchestral lines as incisive and piercing as a surgeon’s scalpel, dissecting the complex textures with clarity and power. Grating trombone rasps, the Dantesque dancing of the double bassoon, glistening harp sweeps, ghostly double bass col legno: the musical juxtapositions of distress and beauty did much to convey the discomposing confusion of Wozzeck’s world and mind. The fierce timpani hammer blows which cry out in fury at Wozzeck’s death were earth-shattering. Superb playing by the ROH Orchestra externalised the inner anguish of those on stage, literally voicing their suffering.

At the start, Wozzeck and Marie’s child sits alone at a desk studying a book; presumably scrutinising a copy of the annotated anatomical drawing of the human head which adorns the front-drop. What knowledge does he seek? The workings of the human mind? The causes of his father’s ‘madness’? The meaning of human existence? On-stage throughout, the child observes all, even witnessing his mother have brutal sex with the Drum Major — repulsively, the latter buys the child’s silence with a grubby coin.

Wozzeck_ROH_02.gifSimon Keenlyside as Wozzeck

At the end, we wonder what the child has learned, as he stares into a tank of blood-stained water, transfixed by his father’s bloated body, while his mother’s corpse lies to the right, disregarded. Amplified voices echo from the auditorium. There are no children’s games of hopscotch, no one to speak to the child and tell him that his mother is dead; one word seems to sum up the painful drama that we have witnessed — meaninglessness. But, rather than existential disorientation, it seems to me that expressionist extremity is closer to the heart of Wozzeck. The violent distortions and heightening have an expressive purpose. At the close, should not pity and empathy accompany our feelings of horror and despair? After all, the composer’s own sympathy for his protagonist imbues the final orchestral interlude.

Warner’s staging is so remorseless that the danger is that we become impassive, shell-shocked observers; stunned and aghast yes, but not moved. Removed from his social setting and context, this Wozzeck is not a common man suffering at the hands of society and circumstance; rather, the tragedy which befalls him is determined by inner psychological compulsions, and yet he experiences no revelation and as such there is no opportunity for catharsis, through pity and fear.

That said, this is a production not to be missed. The cast perform with absolute commitment, and we are paradoxically enthralled by the dispassionate, abusive transactions depicted, even while we flinch from the horrors that the cast of soulless grotesques inflict and endure.

Claire Seymour


Further performances take place on 5th, 8th, 12th and 15th November.

Cast and production information:

Captain, Gerhard Siegel; Wozzeck, Simon Keenlyside; Andres, John Easterlin; Marie, Marita Katilla; Child, Sebastian Wright; Margret, Allison Cook; Doctor, John Tomlinson; Drum Major, Endrik Wottrich; First Apprentice, Jeremy White; Second Apprentice, Grant Doyle; Half-Wit, Robin Tritschler; Director, Keith Warner; Conductor, Mark Elder; Set designs, Stefanos Lazaridis; Costume designs, Marie-Jeanne Lecca; Lighting design, Rick Fisher; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 31st October 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):