Sunday, 17 November 2013


Royal Opera House, London
15 November 2013

Conductor Mark Elder's fascinating introduction to Wozzeck. From here.

Catastrophic mismatches manage to sink this astonishing masterpiece.

This is the second London production of this opera this year, presumably to celebrate the bicentenary of the remarkable Georg Büchner, author of the original drama, Woyzeck.

Berg’s music, and his adaptation as a whole, is so successful that it boggled the mind to realise the original drama is contemporary with Verdi and especially Wagner, and indeed written before either had achieved a mature style. However Büchner might have imagined his work set to music, it is certain he couldn’t have expected a post-Wagnerian, modernist idiom. Yet it works.

Or rather, it usually works. This production is a striking failure.

It’s as if there are three disconnected, even contradictory, planes attempting to intersect in the opera house. The direction/design, the acting and the music.

Director Keith Warner and the design team are most at fault. They make some terrible choices. The setting throughout is a laboratory, where Wozzeck (and maybe Andres) are experiments, so that the Captain becomes a closer associate of the Doctor than in the original drama / opera. This fatuous concept (konzept?) introduces a number of problems, most importantly how to handle the domestic scenes with Marie and her child.

Here, the domestic situation is in a corner of the stage, with an unclear relationship to the experiment. All this could simply be mistaken and misleading but not harmful: a reasonable effort to divine significance from this tawdry drama.

Much worse, Warner has Marie’s child onstage almost throughout, making the extremely heavy-handed observation that he is likely to grow up damaged. This point is hammered home in a final scene so sentimental I think even Puccini would have rejected it. Incredibly, it completely reverses the effect of both the original drama and of Berg’s own ending, where the child carries on playing oblivious to the deaths of his parents and the cruel taunts of his playmates.

Simon Keenlyside and Karita Mattila have beautiful voices and striking presence. They didn’t seem at all well suited to the staging. They belong to the expressionistic tradition, along with Berg himself, striking pained poses and not attempting to be naturalistic.

Arguably this is the correct approach for this opera, and would have worked well in an ‘authentic’ production, as the stills from the works’ premier suggest. But here it seemed exaggerated and jarring.

Musically, Mark Elder conducted in what is now the tradition with Berg, emphasising the beauty of the music. Again, this didn’t sit well with the drabness of the sets and the expressionism of the acting. His approach was measured, stately, giving something of the sense of a ceremony about the piece. It was enormously impressive, and built to some utterly shattering climaxes, as needed.

Overall, then, the effect was extremely peculiar, to the point of dullness, an emotion I don’t expect to experience here. A confusing, sentimental staging undermined by a religious approach to the music and a highly romantic approach to the acting.

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