MUSIC / A loser with moral integrity

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF MEMORY serves, one of opera's recent punter-friendly publicity drives hinged on the slogan 'A great night out'. The words flashed to mind in Leeds Grand Theatre on Thursday. Wozzeck, pushed beyond endurance, was about to murder his unfaithful lover. At this point the director made one small, but in its effect major, adjustment to Berg's precise stage directions. Rather than slit the woman's throat, she had Wozzeck gore her in the belly. Then, in a sickeningly inspired hiatus, she had the woman jiggle on the knife like a puppet before flopping into the unhappy cuckold's arms. Why do we put ourselves through it?

Berg's Wozzeck lasts little more than 100 minutes, but in this short time it wrings you dry, presenting the human condition as one of unmitigated suffering and cruelty. No one smiles, no one gets a tune, there is no interval and no finale. And for this, the director, Deborah Warner, a declared non-opera-lover, allowed herself to be lured from the straight theatre by Opera North to make her debut on the opera stage. Well, it was worth it.

Wozzeck is the only predominantly atonal opera to have entered the standard repertory, which actually makes it more, not less, approachable by a non-musician. In freeing the vocal lines from traditional expectations, Berg's musical language - a seamless flow of speech, sprechstimme and a gloriously expansive lyricism - blows away the fog of 19th-century operatic convention to expose to searing scrutiny the soul of his protagonist.

It is a terrible thing, this clarity and proximity. You gasp for breath, for a glimmer of hope, as the man struggles with his own despair. Andrew Shore's stunning performance as Wozzeck is everything one could wish, convincing us that the treadmill of distraction has been turning even before the story begins. The cause? It could simply be the ignominy of his lowly soldier status; the recognition that despite his efforts to earn extra money - lackeying for the Captain, humiliating himself for medical experiments - his fate is set as a nobody. His red-blooded girlfriend Marie (strongly and darkly sung by Vivian Tierney) is grateful for his support of her and their child, but she betrays him with the flashy Drum Major (Alan Woodrow) at the drop of a hat.

Tragedy must have a hero, yet it is hard to know why our sympathies remain with this one. But Wozzeck has an integrity that sets him morally far above his superiors - the grubby, necrophilic Doctor (John Rath) and the fat, egregiously pompous Captain (Jeffrey Lawton). It is easy to see why the Nazis suppressed this work in the decade after its Berlin premiere in 1925 - it prefigured too accurately the spiritual torpor of the Third Reich.

Warner's astute direction is aided by an admirable new English translation by Richard Stokes that does not flinch from barrack- room expletives where nothing else would do. The ferociously raw, Klee-inspired sets are by Warner's old stable-mate Hildegard Bechtler, who has found ingenious ways to comply with Berg's demands.

Conductor Paul Daniel has complete command of the symphonic-size orchestra crammed into the pit. All praise to a brass section that gave vent to Berg's rich, glowering colours while never threatening to drown the voices. For the few patrons in Leeds who went home unhappy and bewildered, there were several hundred more whose memories will have been seared by this major company effort of lasting insights and power.

Who would have thought we could be ready for more insights into Mozart so soon after That Year? Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert had their own reasons for their all-Mozart programme on Wednesday at St John's: they have just embarked on a four-year project to perform and record (on the Archiv label) all the symphonies. It was also the band's 20th birthday, a time to hang out the bunting.

In 1973, the pioneers of period performance were hardly taken seriously; now the best, such as Pinnock, have joined the Establishment. One of Pinnock's unusual achievements is that he has refused to be dogmatic. We do not offer Mozart's Mozart, he says modestly, rather The English Concert's Mozart, using the right tools for the job. Certainly this was world-class playing, regardless of the niceties of period practice. You are struck by the sweet suavity of the fiddles (gut-strung of course), and some startling woodwind sounds, but equally by the players' verve and technique in prestissimos that raise you half an inch above your seat.

I had never heard the symphonies No 35 (the Haffner) and No 39 done with harpsichord continuo and directed from the keyboard. Pinnock's ability to galvanise the group from a low stool, sometimes by a mere flexing of the knuckles of one hand while he thumps out a left-hand continuum, is a model of ambidextrous intelligence. Another revelation is the way the orchestra achieves a sensuality in Mozart without ever romanticising him. Pinnock allows the sonority to speak volumes, while retaining the discipline of rhythm and line.

These were also the qualities of Barbara Bonney, the soprano brought in for two concert arias, including the late and famously difficult Bella mia fiamma, K528. Bonney's artistry has an intellectual rigour that claims attention for every note and phrase, creating a concentration of expression within a tight framework that is surely the very soul of 18th-century style. Mozart is well served.

At the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday we had what for me was the more dubious side of period performance - a recital by the pianist Alexei Lubimov on an 1858 Broadwood. Chopin and Liszt were not well served. I winced. I have heard many out-of-tune pianos in reputable concert halls, so it wasn't just that. This Broadwood seemed altogether lacking in treble cantabile and bass depth.

How could Chopin's music ever have been played without mellow, melting cantabile? However could Franz have made the ladies swoon? But then he used to break an instrument or two at each recital - Lubimov spent the first half trying not to. The Liszt Petrarch Sonnets were exquisitely Italianate, but they didn't weep or sound the depths. In the four Chopin Ballades, however, he let go, and if the piano didn't exactly respond, the music did. Chopin, for all we know about his own reticent performances, cannot be treated with kid gloves, 1858 Broadwood or no.

'Wozzeck': Grand Theatre, Leeds, Tues and Fri (0532 459351).

Michael White returns next week.