Friday, 17 May 2013

ENO: Wozzeck

I'm terribly behind, so only just getting a chance now to gather some thoughts about ENO's terrific new Wozzeck, which I saw at the second performance on Monday. It occurs to me that this production, along with the very encouraging announcement for its 2013-14 season, has done a great deal to drag me out of a slight depression regarding the company. Talk of its perilous financial situation was by no means stilled by Sunken Garden--I'd gone with a sense of hope, and an assumption that some of the more entertaining of the damning reviews were exaggerating for journalistic effect. I don't feel they were, and I was a little perplexed by attempts in some quarters to portray this as proof that professional critics (supposedly representatives of 'the establishment', even though the critics I know are definitely no such thing) are unable to recognise revolutionary, ground-breaking brilliance when they see it. (There's a tendency, sometimes, to call upon the bizarre logic that because critics in the past have dismissed any number of Great Works by Great Composers, the dismissal of certain works by critics of the present can serve as evidence those works' unrecognised greatness).

Anyway, ENO's new season is introduced in this all-singing, all-dancing video, for those who haven't seen it yet:

It's an exciting line-up, but the same old concerns remain regarding the size of the Coliseum and the sell-ability of some of the runs. Having Martin Crimp provide something rather more than a translation for Katie Mitchell's new Cosi is interesting, but I also still can't help wondering whether or not a slight relaxation of the English-only policy will help the company. Singing some of the bigger blockbusters in the original language would open up the casting options, meaning that ENO could maintain a reputation not only for theatrical adventurousness, but also for adventurous casting--snapping up some really exciting singers from all over the world years before they'd ever make it to Covent Garden. Straw polls among friends--and I'm talking mainly non-operatic friends--reveal that few are particularly excited by the prospect, on paper at least, of Verdi or Puccini in English. And another thing: doesn't ENO's weighting towards new productions serve as a tacit admission that many of its productions are not as revivable (for which one might unkindly read 'good') as they should be?

But, as I suggested, Carrie Cracknell's Wozzeck made all my armchair opera reforms (is there an operatic equivalent to Fifa Manager? Maybe there should be...) seem a bit silly--and made John Berry's strategy seem not silly in the least. Here, with Cracknell, was a director new to opera bringing some wonderful theatrical touches, finding power in the characters and telling contemporary resonances in Berg's brutal, brilliant masterpiece. Some things were lost--the inevitable collateral damage in any updating--and the sense nature that's so central to German Romanticism, even Buechner's grim brand of it, fell by the wayside when the drama was transplanted to a modern-day military barracks.

But, in return, the work provided a powerful commentary on the psychological damage wrought by war today. The portrayal of everything as quite so drug-fuelled and irredeemably grotty was a bit of poetic licence, no doubt, but an effective one that took us beyond realism into something a whole lot more nightmarish. Tom Scutt's set ingeniously contained all the necessary spaces, and the use of children (at one point chillingly playing inhabitants of the bar drinking themselves into numbness) was particularly powerful. Richard Stokes, meanwhile, provided a very effective translation--one that successfully retained much of the power and punch of the original.

The cast was excellent, all managing the extra level of intensity that this setting, awash as it was with drugs, required. Leigh Melrose's Wozzeck was vivid and pent-up, and sung with reserves of power that anyone who heard his Escamillo in the Autumn might have found surprising. Sara Jukubiak was a fearless, powerful Marie, Tom Randle all twitching, jittery violence as a topless and tattooed Captain. Bryan Register was a convincingly barbaric thug of a Drum Major, and James Morris was an authoritative Doctor (I'd not looked at great detail at the cast beforehand, so hadn't expected to hear this great Wagnerian in this context). Edward Gardner achieved really outstanding results from the orchestra, and captured all the brutality and beauty of this great score. A very good night at the Coliseum.

There are three performances left, by the way... book here 

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