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Saturday 2 November 2013

Wozzeck at the ROH


Keith Warner's production of Wozzeck reminds me somewhat of his production of The Ring. There are lots of ideas, many of them quirky and thought provoking, but he seems so intent on them sometimes that he loses sight of the bigger picture. The libretto of Wozzeck, like the play on which it is based, has an unconventional narrative structure and Warner does at least provide a clear line through the action by reducing the number of settings and using repeating motifs which bind the whole to some extent. Wozzeck's house is suggested by three pieces of shabby furniture, and a screen slides across to demarcate the space, producing a forbidding "black box" environment. The silent child hardly leaves the stage and becomes a real focus, though we don't much see how this abuse is affecting him. The rest of the opera's world seems to be the domain of the doctor, who is the architect of Wozzeck's madness, and the manipulator in charge of Wozzeck's other oppressors. Every surface of the doctor's room is covered with oversized ceramic tiles, miniaturising Wozzeck, and suggesting less a laboratory than an abattoir. The greatest beauty of this production is the back wall: a huge angled mirror which reflects an invisible scene behind the stage. It gives the simple yet startling illusion of people being able to walk, dance and lie on a vertical wall, the effect is sometimes magic and dreamlike, and sometimes deeply disorienting. An additional point on the design: it was amazing how much covering the ROH's fussy, gold proscenium arch with black panels transforms the space - suddenly it feels much more modern and serious. An object lesson in psychological framing.

For Warner, Wozzeck's story doesn't represent a progression from sanity to madness, and neither do we see Marie's descent from fidelity to adultery - we enter into both of these stories fully formed, and then just also happen to witness the murder that results of them. It's not clear what, if any, point is trying to be made by this. In reducing the number of locations, Warner also strips the work of some important social contexts - the party scene takes place in Wozzeck and Marie's house, and Marie barely notices it going on - it could almost be her hallucination. The drum major and Captain hardly seem to be militaristically involved - again a thread of social complexity is undernourished.

Wozzeck's death is weirdly mishandled - he dies in a tank of water, but it neither seems like an accidental drowning nor desperate suicide - when he Keenleyside finished singing he just ducked under the water and without struggle became still. Hard to make sense of. Despite all these niggles, the show as a whole isn't at all bad, I just felt that Wozzeck, infinitely rich as it is, could be much more than this. I still enjoyed it very much, but then I am a Wozzeck superfan.

Simon Keenleyside's Wozzeck has moments of real inspiration in the physical characterisation, but the voice sounds very hard, and he bellows his way through a lot of this score. Karita Matilla's Marie is much better sung than I expected based on her recent Salome final scene - the voice is more stable than then, though the slight hoarseness and lost of lustre is hard to ignore. Still, she is as physically committed as Keenleyside, and so is a compelling presence. Their relationship is hard to credit though. John Tomlinson makes a highly energetic doctor, one so sensually involved with his experiments that his reminder to himself about quelling his passions (lest he be unscientific) might well be a common self admonition for him. Vocally the role still sits entirely within his means, and the German diction remains as peerless as ever. Gerhard Siegel is an exceptionally loud Captain, though has to look at the conductor very often, and ends up shouting quite a lot. Endrik Wottrich is luxury casting as the Drum Major, as impressively heroic and powerful vocally as he looks physically. Robin Tritschler reveals a lovely voice as the Half-wit, consolidating my admiration for this young tenor after a recent Wigmore Hall recital.

Possibly the best part of this revival is Mark Elder's wonderful contribution from the pit - the ROH orchestra sound like a million dollars and play with a dazzling precision and range of colour. Elder brings extraordinary beauty and sensuality to Berg's writing when it calls for it; in other places the orchestra hums, shrieks and wails with terrifying force. So often I wished I could just hear the orchestra without the voices. Is Elder in the running for the ROH principal conductor position? He should be.

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