Sunday 4 June 2023

Wozzeck at the Royal, or, In Bafflement

Note: I've struggled to get back to blogging since the pandemic. On several occasions I've written pieces off line, put off publishing them here, and the moment passed. I originally wasn't going to write about this performance because it seems clear to me that I haven't got to grips with the work, but thoughts have been nagging at me so I've decided to set them down but I think this probably has to be considered a reflection rather than a standard review.

 This was my second attempt to get to grips with this opera. I previously saw it at ENO in (Google informs me) 2013, a performance which has not lodged in my memory at all. I also saw a theatrical mash-up of the work with Schubert's Winterreise, entitled Woyzeck in Winter at the Barbican in 2017 - and it is the reimagined Schubert elements of that which have remained with me. The presence of Christian Gerhaher in this new Royal Opera production, and the fact that the work is widely regarded as so influential in the genre, persuaded me to give it another hearing. I still find myself baffled.

The evening did not begin auspiciously for me. Upon entering the auditorium the audience is greeted by a line up of loos across the front of the stage and I had the ominous feeling that I had seen this before. This is of course literally true - I thought of the ENO Bieto Masked Ball - but it also seems to me more broadly true about the production and the work. The overall message of the latter seems to me to be that people behave awfully and the world is going to hell. I can see that back in 1925 this was much more unusual certainly in operatic terms, I feel like contemporary theatre is replete with plays along these lines, and awful behaviour and people seems to be the default setting of much contemporary opera. The trick then, as far as plot and characters are concerned, presumably must be either to somehow make this fresh, or to take the audience in a vice like grip so that despite the familiarity of the world one cannot turn one's head away. This performance achieved neither for me.