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Misery is the river of life

Covent Garden
10/15/2002 -  and 18, 21, 23, 26, 31 October
Alban Berg: Wozzeck
Graham Clark (Captain), Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck), Alasdair Elliott (Andres), Katarina Dalayman (Marie), Claire Powell (Margret), Eric Halfvarson (Doctor), Kim Begley (Drum Major), Jeremy White (First Apprentice), Quentin Hayes (Second Apprentice), Francis Egerton (Half-wit|), Jacob Moriarty (Child)

Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Antonio Pappano (conductor), Keith Warner (director)

Robert Wilson's production of Woyzeck, Büchner's play adapted with music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, seen recently at the Barbican, was visually glorious and musically seductive, a kind of early technicolor Threepenny opera. Most reviewers thought that it had little to do with the "real" Woyzeck, but the way Woyzeck stood out as white and quiet against the fairground colour and noise was a vivid reflection of his madness. And you certainly came out humming the tunes. Keith Warner's new production of Alban Berg's Wozzeck at Covent Garden was visually and emotionally oppressive, and seemed to take place entirely in the numb pain of Wozzeck's mind. The main set, tiled dirty white like a laboratory or morgue, contained four tanks which held scientific specimens -- including eventually Wozzeck himself -- while Marie and the child, almost never off stage, lived in a small dark corner. Warner's production is much closer that Wilson's to the received wisdom about Woyzeck, if anachronistic in its Freudian projections, but Wilson's edge of style was somehow welcome in what is, after all, a deeply miserable and pessimistic work.

At Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano and the orchestra made the score chilly and disconcertingly beautiful at times, reflecting the horrible fascination of the objects of obsession on the stage. Berg's music, with its explicit complex formality, is in its way another component of the cruelty that oppresses Wozzeck: he is subject to musical as well as scientific dissection. Pappano's reading suggested that we should be worried about enjoying the opera.

The singers too exuded personal discomfort alongside vocal facility. The casting was close to perfect. Katarina Dalayman, like many Maries but even more so, was far too tall and beautiful for a cheap tart, but she had an earthy allure and a deep sadness, especially in her relationship with the child. Claire Powell was forceful and brusque in the smaller role of Margret, the other near-human character and the only other woman. The cabinet of monstrosities was exceptionally scary. Graham Clark's Captain looked at first like a suave old gent, but quickly emerged as totally deranged, a study in inner tics. Eric Halfvarson was smoothly sinister as the doctor. The two of them lacked the cartoon-comic aspect that most productions give them. Instead, they were complex, cruel people. Alasdair Elliot was a spooky Andres, incongruously insisting that everything is normal, and Kim Begley was a brutal, sleazy Drum Major. Without exception, they sang the music as if were the most natural setting of the words. Jacob Moriarty was heart breaking as the child.

Matthias Goerne in the title role alone would have justified this production. Although mainly a Lieder singer, he has both the appearance and the emotional rawness that make him an ideal Wozzeck in theory, and as it turned out in fact. Although Wozzeck was already mad at the start of the production, Goerne maintained a confused humanity throughout, apparently resigned to everything the world threw at him but always experiencing a new kind of pain, most poignantly in his contact with his child. Goerne's singing too was bravely expressive. He made the music into feelings made concrete rather than formal patterns imposed on life.

If this performance was not exactly uplifting, it was in the end exquisitely intense and moving. A final alarming effect perhaps distracted attention from the agony of the last minutes, in which the child hears that his mother is dead. A hint that what appeared to be happening was not in fact happening might stop nervous members of the audience from wondering whether it was happening.

H.E. Elsom



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