The deeper Berg’s opera lodges itself in the repertoire, the more intriguing and astonishing it becomes. Its music follows a strict intellectual grid while radiating heat and compassion. The story is motivated by early 19th-century social conditions but has a timeless, universal resonance. So it is good to welcome back Wozzeck to English National Opera after an absence of 25 years, and even better to salute the outstanding musical quality of the performance under ENO’s talismanic music director, Edward Gardner.
His is an extremely tactile reading, more Debussyan than Mahlerian in its delicacy, serenity and atmospheric colouring, but also frighteningly intense where it matters – supremely so in the long eruptive crescendo after the Drum Major’s seduction of Marie, and again in the overwhelming grandeur of the final interlude. Gardner keeps the dialogues on a tight rein, favours light textures and shows an easy grasp of Berg’s gestural language. Played without interval, the 90-minute performance roots the drama in the music.
If the most powerful moments come from ENO’s superlative orchestra, it is not for want of interest on stage, especially when Sara Jakubiak’s Marie is singing. This luscious-voiced American, new to these shores, is an exciting performer, with a radiant upper register and good diction – she must be invited back. James Morris, the veteran Wagner and Mozart bass, is luxury casting as the Doctor, exuding an air of vocal gravitas and cynical manipulation. Tom Randle makes a believably psychotic Captain, while Bryan Register’s Drum Major oozes brutishness.
Leigh Melrose’s anonymous Wozzeck is a victim of Carrie Cracknell’s poorly focused staging, which struggles to find military topicality in an opera that is really about poverty and desperation in the face of entrenched power. Tom Scutt’s claustrophobic doll’s house set clutters the stage and crowds out the characters. And so we get an anodyne narrative, with not so much as a whiff of expressionism, about British soldiers returning to barracks with nightmares of war in Afghanistan, while the officers do a nice line in narcotics. It all seems rather clichéd and tangential. ENO’s brave policy of engaging directors from outside the opera world carries risks, and this is one that didn’t quite pay off.