Wozzeck at ENO

Helen Wallace reviews a shattering new production of Berg's masterpiece, directed by Carrie Cracknell


We’re in a claustrophobic barracks town in Britain today. Baritone Leigh Melrose is the traumatised young soldier Wozzeck, no longer on the frontline but scraping together a living as medical guinea-pig and drugs runner for tenor Tom Randle’s tattooed captain.

The military coffins of his nightmares keep materialising in the mess, while the ghosts of children slaughtered in Afghanistan or Iraq infest the town, peering out of windows, alighting on bar stools. His friend Andres, wheel-chair bound, can only hunt via his Nintendo DS and a can of Red Stripe. In the labyrinthine doll-house of Tom Scutt’s set there’s no escape to nature for grand gestures: Marie’s murder takes place in her kitchen, while Wozzeck himself drowns in his own blood on the same table.

Associate director of the Royal Court, Carrie Cracknell’s operatic debut – at English National Opera – is a shattering assault. Brutality and its legacy are her themes; what we lose in Berg’s more nuanced reading of the deadening militaristic machine, and his moments of poetic symbolism, we gain in a visceral sense of social injustice and vividly realised individuals who feel like our contemporaries. American soprano Sara Jakubiak’s Marie combines strung-out glamour with vulnerability, and her delivery is unforced and gleaming throughout.

Melrose, too, is a young, sympathetic, fresh-voiced victim, desperate and bewildered rather than psychotic, as he’s sometimes played. Randle’s charismatic captain is sinister in the extreme, while the pompous doctor (bass-baritone James Morris) makes the skin crawl. Tenor Brian Register’s Drum Major has presence but gave the vaguest performance dramatically, in sharp contrast to mezzo-soprano Clare Presland’s mesmerising Margret.

The score spoke with scorching immediacy in conductor Edward Gardner’s hands: his restraint allowed violence to erupt with all the more fury: the single, penetrating unison note played after the murder still has the power to shock, and Gardner pushed it to the edge. 

Similarly, the prolonged silence after Marie disappears with the Drum Major hit hard: we are left gaping at her mute son (Harry Polden) asleep under the kitchen table where she will die. Act II is the most congested, and is rarely without its longeurs, though the cross-cutting between on-stage, off stage and pit music was well balanced. Our reward is the dazzling invention of the third act (whose music Britten noted on first hearing a crackly broadcast in 1934 is ‘extraordinarily striking’) and Gardner drew exceptional clarity from each crawling scale and shivering figure.

Rupert Goold was English National Opera’s first choice: one can only be grateful he withdrew since Cracknell has given the company a Wozzeck for our time.

Berg's Wozzeck is on at ENO unti 25 May

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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