Desolation, beauty and horror

Berg – Wozzeck

Wozzeck – Simon Keenlyside
Marie – Karita Mattila
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Doctor – John Tomlinson
Drum Major – Endrik Wottrich
Andres – John Easterlin
Margret – Allison Cook
Fool – Robin Tritschler

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Mark Elder
Stage Director – Keith Warner

Royal Opera House, London. Thursday, October 31st, 2013.

To see one great Wozzeck in a year would be considered fortunate, to see two is just extraordinary. To have seen three outstanding performances of Berg’s two operas in the same year, well that’s just remarkable. Having seen WNO’s sensational Lulu in March and ENO’s exceptional Wozzeck in May, it was the Royal Opera’s turn to perform one of the masterpieces of 20th Century opera at the very highest level. And they certainly matched the achievements of their UK colleagues.

Up until last night I’d seen three shows that were each excellent in various ways and one turkey at the Royal Opera so far this season. This Wozzeck maintained the extremely high standards set by the recent Elektra, Nozze di Figaro and to a certain extent Turandot and provided a very welcome return to form after the ill-fated Vêpres siciliennes. The Royal Opera House orchestra, which can vary between unfortunate in the wrong hands and incomparable in the right, played like heroes. Mark Elder coaxed exceptional playing from them with playing that did complete justice to the full range of emotions portrayed in Berg’s score. The playing ranged from lunar beauty to horrific violence and Elder, who can occasionally come across as unbearably slow in some works, paced the work to perfection.

But it was so much more than that. He was joined by a cast of exceptional singer actors who raised the production to levels much higher than the last time I saw it. Simon Keenlyside’s Wozzeck is a man teetering on the edge of madness from the very beginning. Someone incapable of understanding the world around him with this lack of understanding finally manifesting itself in horrific physical violence. Vocally he was outstanding – the voice richer than I’ve heard it for a while and easy throughout the range. His diction was exceptional – every word crystal-clear and the same could be said for the rest of the cast, I completely forgot about the surtitles after a while and was completely drawn in to the performance.

La Mattila was likewise exceptional. I’m not quite sure she sang all the notes as written but the sheer beauty of tone that she brought to her Marie was completely disarming. She is an all or nothing performer and it meant that this beauty of tone was allied with passages of vocal harshness where she completely let herself go into Marie’s complex personality. It was an incredible portrayal. The rest of the cast was likewise on this exceptional level. John Tomlinson and Gerhard Siegel were both superb as the Doctor and Captain. The Doctor was a perfect fit for Tomlinson’s current resources and he brought his customary care for diction to the role. Siegel sang with great security never falling into caricature as many singers invariably do. Endrik Wottrich’s Drum Major looked great and was vocally decent enough as were John Easterlin’s Andres and Allison Cook’s Margret. The chorus managed those tricky rhythms and harmonies with ease but blend wasn’t always great with a few voices sticking out of the texture.

Keith Warner’s production offered some great individual stage pictures. The final scene of Wozzeck’s ‘drowning’ and the scene with the chorus almost taunting Wozzeck to watch Marie and the Drum Major copulating were both incredibly haunting. It affected me a lot more this time than the last time I saw it and I think that this was due completely down to the exceptional talents of Mattila and Keenlyside rather than the staging itself. At first I really missed Carrie Cracknell’s realistic current take on the piece but the strong performances by the leads completely dragged me into their world and left me wrung out and devastated at the end.

So much of the success of this evening was down to the performances of singer-actors who not only have exceptional voices but who are exceptionally gifted at inhabiting their stage personalities. It saddens me that the Royal Opera has only scheduled five performances of this revival with now only four left. It is certainly one of the finest performances of this shattering work that I have had the privilege of seeing and anyone who believes in the power of opera to transform and move needs to see it.

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Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore 2013
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