Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

In brief: Berg’s Wozzeck – what a piece! How has it taken me so long to get around to hearing it? The ROH Orchestra – fab! Warner’s staging – meh. Keenlyside – yep, still has it.

In long:

Sometimes I think my reactions to music are not, well, normal*. I was thinking this the other night while watching a grim post-apocalyptic drama on TV, during a scene which the composer had scored with a delightful 1960s-analogue-style microtonal electroacoustic soundscape. It had interesting textures and shapes, a pleasing scrunch to the pitch combinations, and a nostalgic touch of BBC Radiophonic Workshop about it. Then I looked at the protagonists on screen, creeping around some creepy dilapidated post-apocalyptic building, probably about to be jumped on by a creepy post-apocalyptic monster, and realised that the composer had probably intended the soundtrack to create an unsettling effect in me, rather than a pleasing and nostalgic one. And that a well-respected professional composer has probably achieved their standing by pushing the correct contextual feelings-buttons for the majority of people. (Having said that, a lot of Rachmaninov makes me feel queasy, and I don’t suppose he intended that.)

* Like I care.

Anyway, that TV show was not particularly compelling drama for me, however much I liked the music, and I’m afraid to say, the same goes for this Wozzeck. Similarly, for large stretches, the happenings on stage did not seem to gel with, or be particularly connected to, the score. What a score, though! I loved the richness of colour and texture (in huge contrast to the dull, dirty, white-tiled, mostly monochrome staging), he imaginative instrumentation, and the well-balanced architectural structure of the work (extremely well-paced and balanced by conductor Mark Elder). To me, a major part of the genius of composers like Berg is their ability to balance on a knife-edge between atonalism and (tonal) chromaticism. (Yes, there are no macro-scale key centres, but there are temporary ones, creating harmonic flow and tension, and leitmotifs for continuity.) I find this a particularly beautiful thing when done right. It was also wrenchingly tragic at times, particularly the orchestral interlude before the final scene, which, while obviously stylistically different, functioned similarly to Siegfried’s Funeral March.

Of course, having not heard the piece before, there might have been hundreds of wrong notes for all I know; I doubt it, though. I hesitate to pick out any individuals from an orchestra sounding so good, but there were some stand-outs – the tuba, for example! All the bassy things had sublime moments, in fact – double bass and bassoon sections, especially contra. Listening out for the flute section, as I always do, there was a lovely languid sensuality to be heard in the 1st flute solos, and a fun bit of whirling offstage piccolo caught my ear. Also, full props to the clarinettist in the onstage tavern band for his excellent warped, drunken, jazz-Mahler sleaziness.

Oh, did you want something about the singers?

I’m a fairly long-term fan of Simon Keenlyside, and it’s been too damn long since I last caught him doing his thing. Said ‘thing’ being singing beautifully and emotively while also throwing himself bodily, to an extent not matched by anyone else I can think of, into whatever the plot, staging and direction demand of him (which is usually quite a lot). Sometimes it’s fun athletic stuff like swinging from scaffolding, jumping over furniture, or scaling high walls with a rope (Billy Budd, James Bond Don Giovanni), sometimes rolling around on the floor in physical expression of emotional torment (Hamlet, Posa in Don Carlo, Oreste in Iphigenie, Winston in 1984). And that’s just off the top of my head – if you think of more, please do add them in the comments. Anyway, this production required him to be given an enema by John Tomlinson (ok, it’s pretend, but still, ick), and then to spend the last 20 minutes or so of the performance underwater (not pretend as far as I could tell – it was a glass tank full of liquid, in the middle of the stage, and he was definitely in it). Commitment.

Karita Mattila was a strong, full-bodied Marie, doing what she had to do to keep her kid fed, and occasionally managing to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life, despite the crushing weight of societal expectation and religious guilt. She also managed to make Sprechstimme a lot less annoying than I usually find it, which is an achievement. John Tomlinson was doing his usual (late-career) Bad Santa thing, which I thought was a little too much with the buffoonishness and not enough with the nastiness for the Doctor role.

Like I said, the set was mostly a large, dull whitish laboratory, in which poor soldier Wozzeck is poked, prodded, constantly insulted, and given beans to eat for extra pay. (NB If anyone wants to pay me to eat my beans, that could be a nice little earner. I like beans.) Taking one of Marie’s lines literally  – something like “we poor people only have a tiny corner of the world”, a small corner of the stage was painted black and designated her home (thus ensuring that people in the Left Slips seats would risk !Health & Safety! by standing up and leaning over the railing to see, every time a key interaction was set there). Marie also commented that she only had a tiny mirror, whereas the stage had a huge tilted mirror at the back, allowing them occasionally to do visually effective set-pieces with reflections of beds, peasants and bloodstains. I’m an opera fan, so I don’t mind if characters are singing about throwing/retrieving their knife in a lake, but actually drop it on the floor then jump in a fishtank; there was some water – close enough. Likewise, characters singing about hearing a voice in the darkness, when the person in question is quite silent and spotlighted right in front of them; I’m just happy the red blood-effect gave me some colour to look at, at last.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this production worked so well for me musically but not dramatically, despite the excellent leads – I think overall, it was the sense of disconnectedness between stage and pit. The last time this happened so severely was Pierrot-pants Pelleas. Anyway, I look forward to hearing the music again, and perhaps comparing different productions in the future…