Review: WOZZECK, Royal Opera House

Deborah Warner returns to the Royal Opera House in this new production of Berg's masterpiece

By: May. 22, 2023
Review: WOZZECK, Royal Opera House
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Review: WOZZECK, Royal Opera House Poor Wozzeck. The guy can't catch a break. Hopelessly alienated male protagonists driven to violence may be ten a penny in opera. But Wozzeck seems to have drawn the shortest straw of them all. Abused, dehumanised, and taken advantage of without relent by his army captain, a doctor, and his wife, he implodes with catastrophic consequences. Berg's psychodramatic masterpiece, based on Georg Büchner's Woyzeck was never going to be a barrel of laughs.

Hot off last year's critically acclaimed production of Peter Grimes, Deborah Warner returns to the Royal Opera House with a predictably bleak new production. Sadistic doom permeates through every filthy surface of Wozzeck's grubby world. We meet the eponymous anti-hero cleaning toilets clad in a dirty jumpsuit. He lives with his wife Marie in a vagley soviet mould-stained tower block. Except for his teal binman uniform and the blood red sun, the palette is jet black, ash grey, and miserable.

There is no solace, hope or harmony to be found visually. Hyemi Shin's set is as atonal as the score; rusty steel girders line the back of the stage with dangling skeletal trees hovering ominously above them, the lone echo of a natural world stripped and humilated. Even scene changes are a visual cacophony. A white screen descends sprayed with demonic shadows from the moving sets. It's messy and it's nightmarish, a spider's web with Wozzeck trapped in the middle.

If it sounds relentless it's because it is. The production dives straight into the deep end of the Lars Von Trier pool of paranoia. There is no sense of decline as a result; Wozzeck's descent into psychological terror doesn't feel like a descent. He already starts at the bottom and can't go deeper.

The music on the other hand finds and draws out the sonic contrasts in Berg's score, and to gorgeous effect. Anthony Pappano, fresh from a supporting role conducting the King's Coronation at Westminster Abbey, builds the knotty music layer by layer and accommodates moments of precious light that shatter through the atonal dark. Flashes of hope emerge, fleetingly romantic strings glide like silk, only to be swallowed by sonorous percussion rumbling like thunder clouds. It's the contrast that gives the music a rich vivacity, but it's not paralled in the staging.

Christian Gerhaher's Wozzeck is vocally sturdy throughout. But like the staging he starts at the low tide mark of psychological disrepair. He is frantic and jittery from the outset. He doesn't gather emotional momentum as the opera unravels. It is Anja Kampe as Marie who really blossoms. She launches in with a velvety warmth but soon comes to fill the space with tragic cold, swallowed by the grim terror of the decrepit world.

Wozzeck plays at the Royal Opera House until 7 June

Photo Credit: Tristam Kenton


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