Tuesday 21 May 2013

Alone in an unbearable world

Wozzeck, ENO, Coliseum, London

After the last notes of the orchestra ended and the curtain had fallen, the first night audience sat in silence for a full ten seconds. It’s one of the most intense evenings of opera I have experienced.

In some ways, it’s almost uncannily timely. Wozzeck, returned from war, is plagued by visions, terrors, delusions. Director Carrie Cracknell sets it here and now: the military parade is of Union-Jack-draped coffins and desert fatigues, a dark twist when the admiring women sing of how handsome the soldiers are. Small, Afghan-looking children haunt the multi-storey set.

But there are always wars from which soldiers come home. The opera was written during and after the First World War, when Berg spent some time in the German army. Büchner’s play, on which it is based, was written only a few years after the death of the historical Woyzeck in 1824, as war and revolution swept to and fro across Europe.

What sharpens this story for twenty-first century Britain is the way Wozzeck’s existential agony is treated by those around him. The Doctor is interested in Wozzeck only as an experimental subject whose case history could make the researcher immortal. Even as Wozzeck is in emotional agony, learning of his lover Marie’s infidelity, the doctor studies his racing pulse and notes his symptoms. This too draws on history: the real Woyzeck tried to plead insanity, but the examining doctor decided he was sane and responsible for his actions.

But despite the very contemporary issues around mental illness, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and ex-military men who turn to violence, more universal themes underpin the opera’s enduring power. Is it nature that makes Wozzeck lash out, or the crushing social system that has humiliated him and left him powerless? Is he a victim of madness, or is his bloody end a horrifying final rebellion against a life of victimhood?

Berg’s work retains the spare poetry of Büchner’s play. The sung exchanges and soliloquies are philosophical, evocative, not expositional. ‘How the Moon rises red…’ Between the sung sections, the orchestra creates spaces full of emotion, which Cracknell populates not just with storyline, but with resonant images: Light shining through yellow smoke; a dead woman trailing long, wet hair.

The score ranges across Mahlerian harmonies, lyrical lullabies, expressionistic discords and jagged, tearing atonality. Sometimes it seems to reflect the growing chaos inside Wozzeck’s mind, at others it uses orchestration, texture and style to draw us along an emotional path or even to share a witty joke with the audience. No wonder it influenced both Shostakovitch and Britten.

Leigh Melrose as Wozzeck, Tom Randle as the Captain – tattooed and bursting with unpredictable energy – and Sara Jakubiak as Marie are outstanding, but there are no weak performances. Music, acting and visual elements work together in such rich layers that one evening feels inadequate to take everything in.

It would be very easy indeed to leave the theatre thinking about the plight of soldiers and their families, or the particular evils of specific wars, or the inadequacies of psychiatry. And to provoke such real-life thoughts is one thing the arts can do. But Berg’s Wozzeck asks us to refrain from treating this human tragedy as a case study, as an example of what they are capable of when social circumstances cage them like the lizards of the Doctor’s experiments.

Though Wozzeck is a nobody, playing out his sorry story in a sordid world, he is as human as Oedipus or Othello. To those around him he is insignificant, pathetic, stupid, a failure as a man. To Berg, to Cracknell and to us, he is a man, alone in an unbearable world, whose tragedy deserves – and gets – everything that opera can use to express it.


Till 25 May 2013.


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