Friday, 9 October 2009


I went to “Wozzeck” last night. Oh God. Oh God oh God.

Don’t get me wrong; Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” is a brilliant opera. Brilliant. It is one of the great fusions of music and drama – dissonant, atonal music is the perfect medium for a story of this nature. But it is so utterly, unremittingly bleak and harrowing. I am an optimistic person with an imperfect but very happy and busy life, and I came out of the RFH last night feeling as if I lived at the bottom of a mine and had never seen daylight or breathed fresh air. It was that good – ie, that shatteringly upsetting – a performance. I doubt if I can ever face it again, though.

I was once in a production of Buchner’s “Woycek”, the original play on which “Wozzeck” is based. This is also deeply bleak, yet it was one of the happiest productions I was ever involved with. The director had decided to do a Shared Experience-style ensemble production. Normally amateur drama is very straightforward; the actors learn the lines and do the acting, the backstage people move the scenery and do the lights, and so forth. Whereas this was all team work and Improv and theatre games and actors’ exercises, and crouching on the ground making odd noises, and actors being scenery, and me singing (the final mad touch – I do have a deep voice but I do not sound like Yanka Rupkina – just marginally more like her than anyone else in the company).

Working on it was fun, and stimulating, and by the end of the run had resulted in a very closely-knit team, with none of the usual stratifications of a conventional production. I suppose it was that which enabled us all to get so much enjoyment out of performing a play about a basically decent man trapped by his social circumstances in a crushingly impoverished life, bullied and humiliated by everyone around him, who eventually goes insane and murders his common-law wife because she is the only person at whom he can lash out.

When you add Berg’s music to this tragic and profoundly nihilistic story, you push up the emotional impact by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Favourite Baritone did himself proud in the lead, his human-scale, slightly husky voice and deeply inward acting style perfect for this character. Katarina Dalayman was a beautiful and sumptuous-sounding Marie. The Drum Major sounded good although he didn’t look the part (for my tastes – skinny and balding do not a hunk make; sorry, folks). Robert Murray was a lovely Andres; I am more and more impressed with him each time I see him in action.

It was semi-staged, which I hadn’t expected. The singers were costumed; they came and went, clutching chairs and props, in the narrow bit of platform in front of the orchestra. Immediately behind them, indifferent and passionate as an army of recording angels, the Philharmonia tore through the wrenchingly powerful and difficult music as if it were no harder than a nice orchestration of Chopin. Esa-Pekka Salonen leapt about his rostrum in a pool of light like a heavenly glow, while at his feet Wozzeck was beaten and broken and driven to his crime and his pathetic death. The contrast between the divine focus of the musicians and the torment of the protagonists was so intense it added an extra dimension to the tragedy. By the time it finished I don’t think I had breathed normally for at least thirty minutes, I was so swept up in the pain and the tension, so carried beyond myself by the brilliant, terrifying music.

It was great. Honestly. Just very, very depressing.

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