OPERA / Off the wall

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The Independent Culture
The stark images of Willy Decker's stunning new production of Berg's Wozzeck for the Netherlands Opera remain long after the music has died. Wolfgang Gussman's designs and Chris Ellis's remarkable lighting have produced a setting that resembles both a child's cut-out book and one of those charming old-style East European animated films where the characters seem to behave like wooden dolls. The effect is chilling. The vast stage of the Amsterdam Music Theatre is reduced to a glaring yellow box within which a black cartoon-style house is set. The scale, position and angle of the house varies in each scene - sometimes multiplying like a set of Russian dolls, or lying on its side in apparent empathy with the sleeping soldiers, or finally turning into a toy for the tragically orphaned child.

With no fussy scenery, and a minimum of props, the staging focuses searingly on Wozzeck as psychopathology rather than social criticism. Gussman's costumes emphasise the pathological: the Captain - a comic-book Hitler in vivid blue; the Doctor - a caricature of a praying mantis in brilliant green, all spindly legs, top hat and tails; Wozzeck and Marie doomed in washed-out grey. The women's bright red wigs and stockings strongly evoke Otto Dix and, in one of the most visually effective scenes, when Wozzeck, having murdered Marie, returns to the dance, the 'black house' is just slightly raised (like a hat) to reveal a mass of dancing red knees.

The starkness of the set and the vividness of the colours serve, paradoxically, to emphasise the richness of Berg's score. Too bad, then, that the musical input does not balance the brilliance of the staging. Only Marilyn Schmeige as Marie is more than adequate vocally, bringing notable expressiveness to the Sprechstimme as well as full-throated singing to the contrasts of coarseness and tenderness in the role. John Brocheler's Wozzeck is dramatically strong, but the voice is not special. Michael Devlin as the Doctor coped with the vocal demands quite impressively while scaling walls or teetering on roofs. Louis Gentile as the Drum-Major and Udo Holdorf as the Captain were adequate, but special mention should be made of Alexander Oliver's cameo appearance as the Idiot, rising, his back to the audience, grotesquely dressed in Marie's clothes. The Netherlands Philharmonic under its principal conductor Hartmut Haenchen was at times ragged, but the biggest disappointment was the failure of the great D minor interlude, the emotional core of the piece, to ignite. The theatre's acoustics may be pretty dead, but that cannot excuse a lack of passion.

(Photograph omitted)