THEATRE: FIRST NIGHT; Wozzeck, Royal Festival Hall

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It has been said that the 19th-century's last two great operas were both written in the 20th century - Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and Puccini's Turandot, each in turn gloriously summarising aspects of the Austro-Germanic and Italian traditions respectively. If that is the case, then what might be called the first true great opera of our century? A strong contender could well be Alban Berg's mesmerising Wozzeck, composed between Der Rosenkavalier and Turandot in the aftermath of the First World War. The work seems a fine choice for maestro Christoph von Dohnanyi (above) to start a major two-part series with the Philharmonia, entitled "Mahler and Vienna: Beginnings and Endings".

In the case of Wozzeck, it's undoubtedly a new beginning that's being signalled, though the opera also forms an intriguing renewal of the Germanic tradition of symphonic drama. There are three short acts, each comprising five scenes, which play continuously and are linked by organised leitmotifs and recurrent harmonies. That said, the harmony of Wozzeck is itself questionable, for the piece is technically atonal with no key signatures and few definite key centres.

Alban Berg attended a performance of Georg Buchner's classic play Woyzeck in 1914. Buchner (who himself was dead by 23) wrote a fragmented and unfinished drama which examines the fate of a simple soldier and barber who murdered his mistress and was publicly executed in Leipzig in 1824. Buchner's detached and clinical analysis of these events fascinated Berg. Here was the ideal subject matter (and style) for an Expressionist opera, especially as Buchner's anti-hero is portrayed as a revolutionary thinker - a true representative of the downtrodden proletariat. Berg's opera itself was not premiered until 1925; a number of further performances ensued before the Nazis designated the work "decadent art" after their rise to power in 1933.

With its bold Constructivist design, use of cinematic technique and musical Sprechstimme, Wozzeck is undoubtedly a Modernist classic and this concert performance from the Philharmonia promises to do it proud, especially in the wake of the success the same conductor and orchestra scored with Berg's mentor Schoenberg's Moses und Aron a couple of years ago. Here, in Wozzeck, an internationally renowned cast - including the voices of Graham Clark, Ian Bostridge and Nadja Michael - support Franz Hawlata and Deborah Polaski as the ill-fated central couple in this gripping tale of love, poverty, adultery, murder and suicide.

Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) tonight, 7.30pm

Duncan Hadfield