Chilling Sterility: Berg's Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House

Going into Wozzeck I wasn't sure what to expect. I've studied the opera in the abstract in music history courses but I've never seen it live. It was really exciting to finally have the opportunity to see such a seminal, if unusual work. It was great that the Royal Opera House opened up the Ampitheatre level exclusively for students and that it was pretty much completely full of them. This production of Wozzeck was great vocally but even better in its conceptualization and the singer's abilities acting within that context.

Synopsis and general information:

Wozzeck | Alban Berg


Director | Keith Warner
Set Designer | Stefanos Lazaridis
Costume Designer | Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer | Rick Fisher

Captain | Gerhard Siegel
Wozzeck | Simon Keenlyside
Andres | John Easterlin
Marie | Karita Mattila
Child | Sebastian Wright
Margret | Allison Cook
Doctor | John Tomlinson
Drum Major | Endrik Wottrich
First Apprentice | Jeremy White
Second Apprentice | Grant Doyle
Half-Wit | Robin Tritschler

Conductor | Mark Elder
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus
The set and lighting of the Royal Opera House's production of Wozzeck emphasizes a clinically stark environment. The opera is set entirely in the white box of the Doctor's lab with four vats containing various medical specimens and, in one, simply water. When relevant the bottom left, markedly dark by contrast, contains Marie and the characters who inhabit her world, accessed through a door into the laboratory. The entire production masterfully demonstrates the sterility of Wozzeck's life and highlights the psychological and interpersonal struggles he endures while also taking advantage of the work's somewhat inherent abstraction.

As the Captain and the Doctor respectively Gerhard Siegel and John Tomlinson offer robustly sung character roles, with little hint of the strain often either covered by or created due to the desire for unique characterization. Both sustain the difficult roles vocally while bringing portrayals that felt a bit overacted. At first this is somewhat off-putting but as the opera progresses the genius of this becomes apparent, casting Wozzeck's simple and realistic woe against the over-the-top, laissez-faire lives of his two overlords.

Karita Mattila's acting, perfect for the role, helps accommodate a rich and large but somewhat tired voice that possibly shows the strain of a long career singing big roles. Overall the performance is quite admirable. Her interactions with her son are touching while her interactions with Endrik Wottrich as the Drum Major are both shockingly horrifying and also vividly lustful. Wottrich offers a kind of dark nobility in both his rich singing and tuned acting.

Of course Simon Keenlyside is the star of the show in the title role. His fame is not undeserved. The size and darkness of his voice are surprising given the lighter end of his broad range of repertoire. Of course as Wozzeck those characteristics are fitting and appropriate, bringing out the darkness of the character perhaps more than the naiveté. Despite, Keenlyside's voice feels more like a vehicle for his impressive acting ability than the star attraction of his performance. Granted, Wozzeck is not a role focused on lustrous beauty of tone. As an actor, though, Keenlyside truly shines. His perpetually perplexed look acts as a foil for the character's moments of cutting insight on the human condition and imparts pathos to the character's tragedy despite his murderous actions. Because of exactly this, Keenlyside's emotional departures from this meek baseline are striking when exhibiting what resistance he does to his overlords or, of course, as the opera ramps up to it's psychologically frenetic finale.

Supporting characters aid with this psychological-experiment interpretation, with functional performances that help create the unusual world-within-the-box. Particularly striking among these performances is Allison Cook's disturbingly flirtatious Margret. Also excellently supporting the leads in this performance are the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus under the direction of Mark Elder. Elder wrings everything in Berg's music out of Berg's music. I often feel that atonal, almost atonal, or otherwise experimental 20th century music must be done supremely well in order to achieve its aims. The ensemble under Elder's direction succeeds in this regard and Elder himself helps to emphasize the psychological complexity of the piece through strong interpretive decisions while carefully balancing against the voices of the lead performers onstage. The slick polish of the ensemble as a whole helps the music to infuse the opera with emotion while the acting takes center stage.

Generally direction by Keith Warner is strong. The entire conceptualization of the opera's setting within the sterile laboratory environment works effectively to communicate its many themes of poverty, insanity, disgustingly manipulated sexuality, guilt, etc. Each character's role is pushed to an extreme - the uncaring joviality of the Doctor and the Captian, the false nobility of the Drum Major, the torn sexuality of Marie. Then, contrary to this,  Wozzeck's own meekness is transformed, suddenly and violently, into aggressive assertiveness before being crushed in guilt. It was a thought-provoking production. Of course stunning, as well, is the final coup de théâtre. The vat of water, so long visible after a white sheet is pulled off it early on, serves as the "lake," in which Wozzeck drowns while attempting to wash off Marie's blood. Simon Keenlyside's superb acting ability carries off the act with a return to meekness and then total stasis for the ten minutes or so he is submerged (with a breathing tube). After this momentous interpretation of the drowning the child's vague performance lacked the haunting emotional horror the "hop hop" lines can so powerfully impart, marking Warner's only conceptual weakness.
Overall however, the Royal Opera House's production is a strong reimagining of Berg's Wozzeck carried off by excellent design and direction and a superb cast led by the inimitable Simon Keenlyside. This is a wonderfully thought-provoking example of how abstraction can work in opera and actually add something to the original work rather than simply act as a flashy new veneer.


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