Sunday, 26 May 2013


English National Opera
25 May 2013

Trailer from here.

Perhaps a little is lost in translation, but this English version is otherwise so good that it doesn’t matter. I hope a DVD recording is imminent.

Director Carrie Cracknell sets it in or around a contemporary army base, and makes indirect links to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This dilutes some of the class concerns of Buchner’s original drama, but it does at least provide a clear social context for Wozzeck’s distressed mental health.

Sara Jakubiak's Marie perhaps has too posh an accent, but could conceivably be an army brat. Otherwise, the production and performances are exemplary. In particular conductor Edward Gardner gives the finest account I have heard. His pacing screws the tension to unbearable levels, and the orchestral playing remains restrained until the key climaxes, when the sound swells to levels I have not experienced before in any theatre.

Among the singer-actors, Tom Randle and James Morris must be singled out for the secondary roles of the tormenting Captain and Doctor respectively, but the whole cast is amazing, somehow convincing us that these are real people.

An essay in the programme claims that a famous problem with the opera is how such a tightly constructed composition could be used to convey the title character’s descent into homicidal madness. But really this presents no greater problem than Verdi’s Otello ie none at all.

The more substantial problem with the work is that it so perfectly imposes a structure on B├╝chner's fragmentary collection of scenes. True, these fragments are probably intended to reflect growing madness, but more importantly they convey the vicious meaninglessness of life.

The original drama, then, can leave the spectator dispirited but questioning: how might our awful lives be improved? Berg’s music drama instead gives the overwhelming impression that its protagonists’ lives are predetermined towards misery and wretchedness.

Further, in a musical performance as good as this one, there is no alienation. None of the singers succumbed to caricature, despite the grotesqueness of their characters. The orchestral sound, at times shattering, nonetheless conveyed as much beauty as noise; the influence of Mahler was obvious, and nowadays opera audiences don’t find the music exceptionable.

Ironically, then, Berg could be accused of employing bourgeois means to defang what might otherwise be a devastating critique of capitalism. I left feeling utterly powerless to even consider options of preventing the tragedy onstage.

I want to be clear: from one perspective, Berg is more mature than, say Brecht or Shaw, to take examples of alienation and satire respectively. His drama presents us with an unbearable situation, and doesn’t allow us to flinch. In fact, that is precisely how I felt watching it – that I must focus all my attention on what was happening, when i would otherwise want to look away.

At the same time, however, this is a drama that provides no possibility for hope. For many of us, the music itself is no longer ‘difficult’ or unenjoyable; but the music drama most certainly is unenjoyable. It is not flawed, nor is it frivolous, and so is a masterpiece but so bleak that it can only be adequately confronted occasionally.

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