Wozzeck, Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Opera's searing new production of Berg's Wozzeck may not be comfortable to watch, but it will stay with you, writes Edward Seckerson

Sunday 12 January 2014 06:12

Top-price tickets for the Royal Opera's new Wozzeck are available for less than it costs to see the Queen musical We Will Rock You. Except that Keith Warner's searing production of Alban Berg's masterpiece really will rock you. So before you read another word, get those tickets sorted. What you see may not be easy to watch, and what you hear will only intensify what you see – but the experience will stay with you; and that's a promise.

There's a child on stage when we enter the auditorium – a tiny child sitting at a table looking toward a stage-filling anatomy chart of the human brain. This is the illegitimate child of Wozzeck and Marie, and what he sees can never be forgotten. "Shut your eyes", says Marie, repeatedly, "or the Sandman will make you blind." But the child will see and the child will hear everything. His parents' nightmare is his nightmare. His immunity to cruelty, to man's inhumanity to man, begins here.

Wozzeck is one of society's have-nots. A victim, a guinea pig, a scapegoat, a poor man with vision. He is truly fortune's fool and, as we hurtle towards the inevitable climax of the drama, Warner has the character of the "half-wit" sidle up to him in an ape's mask as if pointedly to remind us of our common evolution. The half-wit and Wozzeck have much in common. They are wise fools, both. Society may have deemed them dispensable, useful only as "case studies", laboratory rats. But they see and hear with a terrible clarity.

And so Stefanos Lazaridis's soiled white-tile set is the laboratory, the asylum, the hospital, the morgue of our darkest fears. And the darkest corner of it – literally – is forever Wozzeck's. But the door to this private world is an open door. Wozzeck has been violated. And perhaps the most remarkable feature of Warner's staging is the way in which he has represented both the lucidity and the crazed implausibility of the narrative on stage. The filmic intercutting of scenes is achieved by abandoning logic and suspending time and place – you never really know where you are; a huge mirror acts as a window on to the world as Wozzeck sees it – a topsy-turvy world in which we might see an aerial shot of Marie wandering between soldiers' beds in the barracks like a kind of predatory Florence Nightingale. Rick Fisher's startling, unforgiving lighting throws all manner of Fritz Langian shadows.

Such visions superbly complement the haunting, haunted nature of Berg's score, but also its savage beauty, as in the moment where Marie's lust for the Drum Major (Kim Begley) climaxes in an act of brutal buggery that is horribly in concord with the dissonant ecstasy of the music. The score has been wonderfully prepared by Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra, who reveal it in all its phantasmagorical detail. Pappano gives it a line, a consonance, that is so often obscured. A myriad of melodies emerge from hiding, you hear fragments of them finding form and shape, like the premonitions of that heart-rending D minor interlude to the final scene.

And speech, too, evolves into song in a way that you can only imagine Berg himself heard it: the hysterics, the Captain (Graham Clark) and the Doctor (Eric Halfvarson), distorting every utterance like the oral equivalent of grotesque caricature drawings; Marie (Katarina Dalayman) reaching way above the stave for that elusive state of grace she will never achieve.

Matthias Goerne bringing a great lieder-singer's sense of nuance and inwardness to the title role – an extraordinarily complete and courageous performance through which we reluctantly identify with the awful truth of his seemingly incoherent ravings. His final reduction to the level of a human laboratory specimen is a little touch of theatrical genius. Go.

To 26 October, Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000)

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