<preform>Wozzeck/Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff</br>Semele/Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow</preform>

Bruised, bloodied and bold - 57 varieties of brilliance in a can
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The Independent Culture

Though Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's facile 2004 La traviata was the first opera to play in Welsh National Opera's new home last week, it is Richard Jones's bold Komische Oper production of Wozzeck - the first WNO production to be premiered at Wales Millennium Centre - that marks a new era for this company. Stark, vicious, comic and violent, it is Jones's most concentrated work to date: a stunning show for a stunning building, brilliantly acted, and played like bruised and bloodied Mahler under Vladimir Jurowski.

Though Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's facile 2004 La traviata was the first opera to play in Welsh National Opera's new home last week, it is Richard Jones's bold Komische Oper production of Wozzeck - the first WNO production to be premiered at Wales Millennium Centre - that marks a new era for this company. Stark, vicious, comic and violent, it is Jones's most concentrated work to date: a stunning show for a stunning building, brilliantly acted, and played like bruised and bloodied Mahler under Vladimir Jurowski.

A single line in Berg's opera provides the central image in Jones's production: a can of generic baked beans. Wozzeck (Christopher Purves) works in a canning factory under the hectoring, self-absorbed Captain (Peter Hoare). He eats a diet of beans recommended by the eccentric company Doctor (Clive Bayley). He lives in a baked-bean Bourneville apartment with his disaffected lover Marie (Gun-Brit Barkmin) and their son (Matthew Brettle), drinks in the canning factory pub, kills with the puckered edge of an open lid, and dies in a vast safety-orange skip full of empty containers of the developed world's most basic foodstuff: a parasite, product, consumer and victim of, ooh, capitalism? Poverty? Monotony? Hopelessness? Loneliness? The spoon that Wozzeck wears around his neck is yoke, birthright and bar-code, passed on to his orphan in a final scene of succulent cartoonish cruelty.

Designed with perfect economy by Paul Steinberg and lit with voluptuous intensity by Franck Evin, Jones's production balances simplicity with sophistication. Berg's opera throws up the eternal opposites - rich/poor, good/bad, love/hatred, ease/disease - and Jones dissects the pathology of each with surgical confidence. Unlike Matthias Goerne's jarred Hunterian specimen in Keith Warner's Covent Garden production, Purves's Wozzeck is an ordinary man subject to extraordinary levels of stress; the kind that anyone might have felt at some point in their life, medicated by the hope of moving on to better times. Here there is no such hope. So contained is Steinberg's world that it suggests there is nothing beyond the factory walls. Does the Drum-Major (Peter Svensson) occupy a different plane? Or does he simply have an executive model of Wozzeck's quarters on the same estate?

For the first hour of the opera, the tension on Purves's face is less that of incipient madness than incipient sanity in a crazy world. None of the characters in this dystopia are people you would care to spend time with, but neither do they advertise their insanity. Marie is not a victim pragmatically feeding her family through prostitution. She's a bitch whose cancerous disappointment with her own circumstances invokes an almost physical revulsion in her child. Only after being taunted over her infidelity does Wozzeck break sweat. And only when he and Marie are walking around the lake (here the skip) do his rage and despair spill out as he charges into the walls around like a caged bull. So tightly disciplined is this transformation that only afterwards do the surrounding details register. Faces are obscured by claustrophobic ceilings, giant cans and rubber masks. Skips grow fatter scene upon scene. The factory itself achieves an almost organic identity: sucking life into its conveyor-belt intestines and spitting out waste at the other.

Not all of WNO's cast have world class voices but this is a world class ensemble of singing actors in a world class production. Barkmin's brief moments of tenderness are impactful, while Bayley's Doctor, Tim Mirfin's Apprentice, Matthew Beale's Andres, and Svensson's swaggering Drum-Major offer arresting cameos. It is hard to imagine a more charismatic Captain than Hoare, and Purves's impersonation of the title role - intelligently and musically sung, as ever - is so complete as to eradicate his normally affable stage presence. For one and a half hours, he is Wozzeck. The chorus scenes are beautifully drilled, the singing crisp. And in acoustics that combine the intimacy of Glyndebourne with the bounce and glow of Bridgewater Hall, it is as much Jurowski's night as it is Jones's: a sensual, lyrical account of the score, played beautifully by the orchestra, and underlining Berg's late-Romantic roots.

As Scottish Opera's last new production before a year of brutal belt-tightening and concert performances, Semele is something of a condemned man's meal. The raw ingredients are certainly tempting: a score of immense refinement, a witty, sexy libretto, a young director notable for the immediacy of his stagings, an attractive cast, and a debuting conductor whose understanding of the music of this period is stamped on every note. So is Semele endless pleasure? No. John La Bouchardière, who staged Monteverdi's Sixth Book of Madrigals to great effect with I Fagiolini last year, appears to have panicked in his headline debut with Scottish Opera. Every postmodern cliché in the Big Book of Baroque Opera is here: handheld video footage, NASA starscapes, Montalvo clouds, klieg lights directed into the auditorium, a Carsenesque usherette, an Ardenesque aerialist, an amateurish play on opera versus oratorio in Act I, and a floating futon that I was itching to fluff up and straighten out the second that Lisa Milne (Semele) and Jeremy Ovenden (Jupiter) stopped canoodling on it.

Much of the imagery in Greg Browning's video projection is pretty. Some of it is quite funny. Some of it touching. La Bouchardière excels in barely suppressed reactions, blinked back tears, enlarged pupils and other tiny nuances of frustrated and realised sexual desire. But sifting through what matters and what is merely decoration in Semele is as enervating as combing the rails of a designer discount warehouse sale for something more wearable than a size eight fuschia boob-tube. Barely a da capo aria passes by without some extraneous business undermining the mood and meaning and character that conductor Christian Curnyn, the orchestra, and the singers have painstakingly built up; most destructively when Jupiter's celestial sofabed speeds through the solar system at warp factor five during Ovenden's poised account of "Where e'er you walk". Is Peter Sellars the only director who trusts the symmetry of da capo? To distract from repetition is to misunderstand its rhetorical function.

Among the singers, Milne and Susan Bickley are outstanding. Bickley brings pathos to the role of Ino and high-camp apoplexy to her alter-ego Juno. Though Milne's costume is mumsy, her facial acting is beautifully detailed and her shaping of Semele's dazzling and demanding arias is ardent, elastic and intelligent. Scottish Opera's cruelly axed chorus adapts well to the stylistic shift, though not with the fluency of the orchestra's intrepid upper strings. (The double basses are lead boots to Curnyn's meticulously articulated phrases.) Most striking, however, are Curnyn's dynamic accounts of the accompanied recitatives. A Glyndebourne debut cannot be far off for this talented Handelian. Nonetheless, there are better productions to remember Scottish Opera by in the dark months ahead.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Wozzeck': Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (0800 328 2357), to 12 March, then touring; 'Semele': Theatre Royal Glasgow (0141 332 9000), to Fri; Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), from 17 March

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