Coming in a year that marks the centenary both of Benjamin Britten and of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, few could refute the timeliness of a reprisal of Wozzeck, Berg’s most enduring and influential opera. As the success of the Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise programme has amply demonstrated, modernism is finding as sympathetic an ear today as it has at any point in its history. Moreover, the literary source for Berg’s libretto – a Büchner play charting the demise of a soldier returning home from war – takes on a whole new dimension when British involvement in Afghanistan finally appears to be nearing its end.
Berg was certainly no stranger to the sort of hostility that famously greeted Stravinsky’s work, but despite having his early attempts jeered off stage he makes no concessions to the demands of bourgeois taste here. There are no set-piece arias in Wozzeck, and the story is slight: this is what happens when one side of a love-triangle is really rather crazy. Instead, we get a densely-textured psychological portrait that at once enthrals and terrifies.
Berg’s score, conducted by Edward Gardner, is all boom and bombast. As our protagonist’s scatterbrained paranoia is gradually refined into an idée fixe, so too does his theme find its abject focus – an anxious pattern of notes culminating in a single, piercing discord as denouement approaches. The music itself seems on edge, never quite settling into a steady, recognisable form.
Tom Scutt’s three-tiered set only deepens the gloom. The stacked houses proclaim their poverty. On the ground floor stands a grimy boozer, with yellowing fixtures and beer-wet carpets; a urine-soaked stairwell leads to an abandoned workshop and pokey flat; a neglected schoolroom surveys the scene. There are plenty of shadows in which to hide the ghouls of Wozzeck’s imagination, which emerge from time to time in startling, non-digetic flashes. Most depressing of all is the top floor, seemingly inaccessible to the performers. In this, Scutt seems to refute the possibility of deliverance; eyes turned heavenward meet only the baseness: a grim row of urinals and a mouldering billboard displaying puckered, sensuous lips . In place of freedom is nature’s command.
This sense of enclosure and desperation lies at the heart of this production, which seems to offer less an anti-war message than a denouncement of what makes war possible. Employment’s false promise, it is argued, is a way out of squalor, even when that road is littered with IEDs; Berg’s characters attest to the fallacy. More interesting is the suggestion that the choice was never theirs to make. The call to arms spans the generations – accordingly, Cracknell’s staging is awash with the iconography of youth. There are numerous (fairly glib) references to videogames, presumably charged with instilling an appetite for violence; dozens of toy dinosaurs uphold the ideal of a predator’s dominion over prey; children learn to imitate their parents’ bawling from the window of their schoolroom. Blood, in other words, begets blood. A statuette of Sooty the bear watches over the stage like Christ the Redeemer – a false idol reassuring its devotees that life will be better for our children. Needless to say, the ideal of childhood innocence does not survive the end of the opera. Christian faith receives similar short-shrift, as biblical episodes and postures are re-enacted but misunderstood. The characters’ manifold suffering is doomed to perpetuity.
Given Berg’s probing of his sinister interiority, the success of this opera depends more than most on the performance of its lead. Leigh Melrose doesn’t disappoint, delivering a twitchy, disturbing Wozzeck who remains articulate despite the stabbing, halting rhythm of his verse; soprano Sara Jakubiak makes a feisty Marie who attracts sympathy despite the melodrama. Also worthy of note is James Morris’ Doctor, who is fitting grandiloquent and impresses with his ability to work his tongue around some choice medical terminology. But there were no weak links here. All combine to produce an intense (if somewhat relentless) hour-and-a-half.