OPERA / Shaving you close, and closer still: Edward Seckerson reviews Deborah Warner's debut as a director of opera in Opera North's production of Wozzeck

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The Independent Culture
SCENE ONE. Wozzeck is shaving the Captain. The poor wretch is patronised and lectured for his trouble. 'Eternity', sings the Captain, his voice soaring to a surreal falsetto as Wozzeck's razor arrives provocatively at his throat.

The irony of the moment is not lost on Deborah Warner. Her fine-tuning is delicious. Opera North's new Wozzeck is her first opera production, spare and painfully honest like the best of her theatre work. Experiencing it is a little like being present, scene for scene, at the opera's inception. Berg did so much more than lend musical expression to Buchner's extraordinary 'dramatic fragment' - he tapped directly into its central nervous system. Warner duly flays the nerve-endings.

Her stage is a grubby canvas, ever changing but always blank - Wozzeck's world: desolate. Hildegard Bechtler's designs are all soiled, distressed surfaces; a single black curtain swishes between scenes like a cinematic wipe.

Garishly daubed sky-cloths are the expressionistic sun and moon of Wozzeck's dark night of the soul - very fin de siecle. Buchner's characters inhabit this soulless landscape like human accidents. Warner never hides them behind business. Not a superfluous gesture or prop in sight.

At the close of Act 1, just as Marie has surrendered her body to the sweaty, brutish advances of the Drum Major, Warner pre-empts Berg and Buchner and furtively brings on the Idiot. He is alone. He dips his finger in Marie's wash-basin and sniffs it. Already he smells blood. Curtain.

It's a simple idea, but its placing is devastating. It sets up and strengthens Buchner's most telling leitmotif - everything reeks of blood. Wozzeck doesn't slit Marie's throat, he guts her; what's more, Warner resists lowering the curtain on this appalling scene but forces us to hold our gaze on the violated body as two awesome crescendos on a single note, B-natural, underline the horror. This is a producer who not only listens to the music but truly hears it. She even explores the silences beyond it.

At the close of Act 2, a broken Wozzeck stares numbly out at us, a poignant freeze-frame held for what seems like an eternity after the music has died. It's at moments like this that it's hard to look at Andrew Shore's beautifully observed, bravely sung Wozzeck. To watch him bursting to express himself, desperate to make sense of his feelings, is so uncomfortable it hurts.

They say that gifted comics make the greatest dramatic actors. Shore is proof conclusive. From his recent Don Pasquale to this is an astonishing double. His scenes with Vivian Tierney's Marie are truly at the heart of the matter. Here is no idle slut, just an exasperated, self-despising mother, denied the right to decency, to love and be loved.

Tierney is another brave singer, almost recklessly pushing the imperative of the words through Berg's intense vocal contortions.

The immediacy of Richard Stokes' punchy new English translation makes all the difference, of course - a wise decision on Opera North's part. But then, they've got just about everything right here. Central casting couldn't have improved upon this gallery of grotesques: Jeffrey Lawton's mountainous Captain, John Rath's suavely sinister Doctor (a veritable Doctor Death), Alan Woodrow's squat Drum Major, the very antithesis of Marie's bearded colossus - a nicely perverse touch.

But the real characterisation begins and ends in Berg's orchestra. Paul Daniel already has his head and heart right inside this febrile and hugely compassionate score. He shapes and elucidates, hears everything. In time he'll doubtless climax with a greater sense of culmination at the cathartic D minor Interlude.

After that we are left with one more indelible image: Wozzeck and Marie's pathetic orphan. A smear of his mother's blood stains the spot where he sits cleaning someone else's shoes - over and over. That's his future.

There are further performances of Wozzeck on Tuesday and Friday (7.15) at The Grand, 46 New Briggate, Leeds LS1. Advance booking on 0532-459351 / 440971