Royal Opera House 2022-23 Review: Wozzeck

Deborah Warner’s new production is stark and affecting

By Benjamin Poore
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Expectations were high for Deborah Warner’s new production of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” at the Royal Opera House. Warner’s acclaimed treatment of “Peter Grimes” saw her in similar territory—indeed, the debt owed to Berg’s score by Britten is considerable—in a pair of twentieth-century operas about alienated outsiders, disturbed by the very society that despises them. Both pieces are razor-sharp psychological portraits channeled through bracingly expressionist musical languages. Both productions were led by artists who have put idiosyncratic and memorable stamps on the title roles: tenor Allan Clayton in “Peter Grimes”, baritone Christian Gerhaher in Berg’s remorselessly taut drama. The rest of the cast for both shows was—and is—equally starry. 

“Wozzeck” is based on Georg Büchner’s incomplete “Woyzek.” It is the story of a downtrodden soldier who murders his mistress and drowns himself. He earns his money by selling his body to the megalomaniacal Doctor, who puts him on a diet of beans and torments him for urinating in the street. He also does odd jobs for the equally tyrannical Captain, whose hyperactive disquisition on the nature of time at the beginning of the opera sets the nightmarish mood.

More Precise & Stripped-Back

Compared to “Peter Grimes”, Warner’s “Wozzeck” is even more precise and stripped-back. She has clearly grasped the surgical precision of Berg’s 100-minute-long score. Not a texture or gesture is wasted, and Warner uses its various formal plots—passacaglia, rondo, fugue—to frame the highly condensed drama before wisely getting out of the way. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the opera’s far-reaching philosophical and sociological insights, it is not a piece that accommodates hefty conceptual interventions from directors: it is, rather, most amenable to bold, visceral designs. 

In getting out of the way, Warner creates a staging of exacting power, aided by Hyemi Shin’s designs. Humanity’s broken relationship with the natural world—exemplified by the Doctor’s weird experiments and the distorted quotation of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony that haunts the score—is in plain view throughout. Trees—desiccated as if in winter—float unnaturally in front of a gloomy, projected cloudscape, literally rootless. The branches that Wozzeck and Andres hack at in the second scene are similarly withered. Costumes are contemporary and ordinary. 

Sets are simple—a piece of wall for a street—and amplify the enormous emptiness of the setting. Lighting (Adam Silverman) blazes, enveloping the stage in red when Wozzeck manifests a sea of blood. It is in the best tradition of Berg’s contemporary Adolphe Appia, whose symbolist innovations in theatrical design always stemmed from psychological breaks and flows. Alongside this there is the threat of brute physicality and dumb matter: soldiers piss in the urinals of a bathroom as Wozzeck mops the floor in blue overalls, before they jostle and bully him. The same scene repeats itself, this time at the hands of the Drum Major, in the barracks later on.

The overall tension between blunt naturalism and impressionistic abstraction gives the impression of a broken world whose shattered halves do not add up to a whole. Transitions between scenes are indicated by the drop of a simple cloth screen whose abrupt impact is stunning, while scene changes happen in spectral silhouette. The tavern band spins wildly on a revolving stage as Wozzeck’s mind comes apart after the murder of Marie. The only wrinkle comes with Wozzeck’s death. He just wanders offstage left, which feels like a criminally understated and obtuse conclusion to an extraordinary journey; one which called for something more atmospheric. 

A Masterful Cast

Baritone Christian Gerhaher defines the title role. Here the tools of his vocal trade create something truly memorable and affecting. The special delicacy and fragility that Gerhaher finds in the top third of his voice, with its ethereal tenderness, creates a character who is subdued and downtrodden. He has a quiet, rather than exaggerated, sense of desperation at the world around him. The distant quality of Gerhaher’s voice tells the story of Wozzeck’s growing disaggregation from reality. There are shades of his unusually understated performance of Figaro in David McVicar’s production of Mozart’s opera from a few years ago: awkward, ordinary, even a little shy. He sings the role with the weary sadness of Mahler’s songs, and with total technical assurance. 

Soprano Anja Kampe plays Marie. Her scenes with her child—whose heartbreaking realization as to the fate of his parents is perfectly carried off by Jonah Elijah McGovern in the final scene—are relatively still and spare, and give her crystalline voice plenty of room to gleam. The cut-glass quality is beautiful, but fragile too, and rounded out by warmth and softness in her lullaby. 

Tenor Peter Hoare as the Captain, and bass Brindley Sherratt as the Doctor, make an evil pair, though never slip into caricature. Hoare plays with the sharp pivot between hair-raising head voice and the nastier, more guttural lower reaches. This captures the character’s frantic instability, though there are flashes of (dark) comedy too. Sherratt’s Doctor has a granitic authority, with ink-black colors given definition by the pert diction we have heard before in his performance as Claggart in Warner’s “Billy Budd.” 

Tenor Clay Hilley—an acclaimed Heldentenor on mainland Europe—made his house debut as the Drum Major. It is a role that can too often descend into mere thuggery—vocally and physically—but Hilley treads a line between a certain preening charm and more naked coercion of Marie. This is reflected in singing that balances sheen and long legato lines with its underlying power and focus. Tenor John Findon is also a house debut—a singer well-known to Coliseum audiences up the road—and is garishly playful as the Fool. Bass Barnaby Rea is another house debut as the First Apprentice. It is incredible that this fine bass, who has established himself thoroughly in mainland Europe, is only now appearing at Covent Garden. 

Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a reading of the score that bends towards Berg’s Romantic lyricism, especially in lush—even intoxicating—string playing. It took a few minutes for the ensemble to settle, but subsequently Pappano’s deft reading had Straussian poise. The C-major chord that arises when Wozzeck gives Marie what little money he has at the top of Act Two shone like moonlight, and just as ghostly too: as if an act of kindness is the most unnatural thing in this world. The tavern band performed especially well on a challenging spinning set, playing complex music from memory as part of the action. At times Pappano could have made more of the score’s most devastating moments: the enormous B natural in Act Three should have pinned us to the backs of our seats. But, overall, this is a masterful account of one of the pinnacles of the repertoire, with voices and staging working in devastating tandem. 


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