OPERA / Reality report: Meredith Oakes on Alban Berg's Wozzeck at the Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
Low life may be a modern theatrical staple, but no living writer has caught it better than the 20-year-old Georg Buchner did around 1835. His Woyzeck, based on a real instance of a soldier who murdered his common-law wife, was the first artistic bulletin from the front line of ordinary poverty and madness. Even with the grit pearled over by the opalescent nervous haze of Alban Berg's symbolist music, Wozzeck is never a smooth night at the opera. The scenes it brings before us, with insanity as a chaotic basic premise not just a theatrical conceit, are snatched from the brink where suffering falls into silence, and where man's understanding of his own behaviour reels. Yet there Wozzeck stands, an elaborate entertainment, a big, busy, smart event. The paradox of realistic drama has never been more uncomfortable.

On Thursday, English National Opera opened its 1990 Wozzeck to muted if respectful applause. David Pountney's reading (revived by Nancy Diuguid), based on Berg's period not Buchner's, is as pitiless as the hero's own world: peopled by lurid Otto Dix caricatures, lit by sick expressionist yellows and reds, fixed in a two-storey industrial set where huge steel roller- blinds guillotine the whole stage.

The concept is elegant but there is something a bit tacky and scissors-and-paste about the realisation. Donald Maxwell, singing with authority in his return to the title role, becomes a white- faced robotic son-of-Pierrot with fussing babyish gestures. We don't feel his pain even though we are inundated in his psychic unease. The mindless Captain's gym equipment includes a barber's chair doubling as exercise cycle: a cheap stagey joke. Stefanos Lazaridis' glittering, spectacular metal set necessitates changes that don't always fit the music, so that there are bald silences where there should be an irresistible flow. Ian Caley, singing strongly in dreadful orange wig and whiskers, looks like a Gilbert and Sullivan drum major. When he gooses Marie it's as bizarre as if Rupert Bear had done it: score ten for trendy puppeteering, two for emotional resonance.

Kristine Ciesinki, returning to the role of Marie, provides the raw pathetic lyrical realism missing elsewhere. Her scene with the earrings that the drum major has given her, where she punishes her child with all the vicious caprice of her own self-hatred, is as terrifying as her voice is lovely. Similarly powerful is the adept naturalism of the staging at the end, where the child (Oliver Brignall) rides his hobby-horse with perfect absorption while other children rush off to see the bodies of his parents.

This is no half-hearted revival. The singing is committed, enterprising and clear, even if the Doctor of Richard Angas takes Sprechgesang to parts it was not intended to reach. Richard Armstrong, conducting this production for the first time, provides a secure and luscious orchestral ambience, though the dynamic range could be still wider and the joins still neater. An absorbing Wozzeck, even with its imperfections.