It isn't hell's kitchen, it's something much more sinister: hell's laboratory. In Keith Warner's 2002 staging of Berg's Wozzeck, sensationally revived here for the first time, this is where the poor, the outcast, the detritus of humanity go to be examined. All human waste passes through these grubby white-tiled rooms. And it's only a matter of time before our hapless anti-hero Wozzeck - soldier, cuckold, guinea pig - ends up in a specimen jar. Literally.
For those who haven't seen this harrowing production (and now's your chance at knock-down prices), I'll not reveal the details of Wozzeck's watery demise (an astonishing coup de théâtre), except to say that its tragedy is doubly painful for being witnessed - as is everything - by the innocent child whose parents must sell their bodies so that he might survive. But what price survival in this brutal world where the madmen have taken over the asylum? The only lessons that this child learns begin and end with abuse. When his mother Marie is brutally buggered by the Drum Major, Warner fills the silent aftermath of the chilling scene with a yet more chilling dumb-show in which the soldier's response to the realisation that the boy has seen everything is to give him money. Abuse has a price, but at least it's cheap.
There are many such insights, and many beautiful, eerie and disturbing images in this haunting staging, but it is this cast's voracious commitment and courage that really strips the flesh and blood from Berg's expressionist masterpiece. In his Covent Garden debut, the bass-baritone Johan Reuter is astonishingly successful in conveying a man teetering on the brink of the abyss, a man neutered by circumstance. Susan Bullock's vocally fearless Marie is a passionate, vulnerable creature who has had the beauty brutalised out of her. And the authority figures are scary. Graham Clark's lame, sunken-eyed Captain redefines grotesque, his words stinging like razor burns. Kurt Rydl's Doctor is the black bass of ruthless ambition, the grim reaper of medical ethics.
But it's the beauty and bestiality of Berg's hallucinatory score that defines this amazing piece of music theatre, and through the conductor Daniel Harding's expert ear and playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House that was as heartfelt as it was revealing, there was always something to startle the senses. Unmissable.
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