Simon Keenlyside, with Sebastian Wright, in ‘Wozzeck’
Simon Keenlyside, with Sebastian Wright, in ‘Wozzeck’

After first-rate revivals of Le nozze di Figaro and Elektra to start the Royal Opera season, here comes another. It is almost 100 years since Berg hit upon Büchner’s play Woyzeck as the subject for an opera (composition started in 1914 and was completed in 1922) and his crushingly powerful music drama has lost none of its impact since then.

Keith Warner’s production, dating from 2002, sets the opera in a medical laboratory. Disenfranchised, without recourse to money or influence, Wozzeck is shown to mean nothing more to the world than a laboratory rat. At the end he dies in one of the large, glass cases that house the experiments, drowned – or perhaps pickled in bloody water – like one of Damien Hirst’s art works.

The production might seem to invite a cold, clinical performance, but there is humanity in this revival, too. This comes primarily from Simon Keenlyside’s moving portrayal of the title role. A younger-looking Wozzeck than usual, he feels innocent and vulnerable (how touching is the scene when he watches Marie from outside with his head resting wistfully on the window-frame). It is as though Keenlyside’s unforgettable Papageno of 10 years ago has wandered into the wrong opera and finds himself caught in a demeaning world where every exit door is locked.

The cast is a strong one at all levels. Karita Mattila, in her role debut as Marie, is in fearless voice. Playing Marie contrastingly as a fighter, she shows that no amount of resilience is of avail for the hopeless poor. John Tomlinson adds a brilliant cameo to his extensive gallery of operatic roles as the Doctor, salaciously exulting in each grisly experiment. Gerhard Siegel and Endrik Wottrich are an ideally well-contrasted pair of tenors as the Captain and the Drum-Major. Allison Cook and John Easterlin make vivid appearances in the smaller roles of Margret and Andres.

It must be tempting for a conductor to let rip as if Wozzeck is really a showpiece for the orchestra, but Mark Elder plays it the hard way – taking care of the details, building up the drama patiently, always allowing the singers to be heard in an equal partnership of words and music. Another strong revival.

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