‘Man is an abyss’ - Keith Warner seems to have taken this as the defining phrase for his production of Berg’s dark opera about the hapless Wozzeck, victim turned murderer.
Soldier Wozzeck makes extra money on the side both by acting as personal servant to the Captain - who thus feels free to comment on the immorality of Wozzeck’s personal life - and by subjecting himself to the Doctor’s scientific experiments. This money goes to support his lover Marie and their illegitimate son. Taunted by Doctor and Captain with Marie’s infidelity - the Drum-Major is graphically shown taking possession of Marie while the child watches - Wozzeck eventually loses control and, in his madness, kills her.
In this production, though, the white tiled set and the singers’ performances tell us that we are all already mad - the whole world of the opera is an asylum, except for the dark corner of Marie’s room. Once that is absorbed into the glaring sterility of the Doctor’s laboratory with its glass tanks (one of which appears to contain the whole town in which the action takes place), there is no refuge for Wozzeck or for Marie.
So bleak is the director’s image of life as one big institution, with ourselves as lunatics or lab rats, that empathy with the characters comes slowly. Berg’s music and the expressive performances of the cast, however, unfold a landscape of human tragedy that draws the audience in. The singing of the child, left alone with his mother’s bed at the end, as yet not knowing that both his parents are dead, is heart-rending.
The Royal Opera House, London