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.
I also clearly struggle to engage with Berg's musical world. I think I've heard his Violin Concerto live a couple of times and found it compelling, but I can't recall other pieces that have gripped me. As opera I can hear that for its time it was doing new things - in particularly shying away from distinct musical numbers, from individual arias, but also, it seems to me, from Wagner or Strauss through composition. There are echoes of both those composers which I confess made me long to be listening to them. There is fleeting lyricism and climaxes that from glancing at other accounts are supposed to be shattering. But on this hearing I found the whole very stop/start, disjointed. It didn't seem to me to build up musical momentum and emotionally I was left cold. I did wonder if, in the hands of another conductor (Pappano was on the podium), different effects might be achieved.
Contrary to others, I've been underwhelmed by Deborah Warner's recent Britten stagings for the House and this didn't change my mind. It seemed to me that Warner couldn't decide between a realist or an abstract staging. The set is minimal and from the Amphitheatre it feels open and often bare - as with her Billy Budd I felt it worked against the sense of claustrophobia it seems to me the work needs. The general appearence is grotty and rundown - it probably has to be for this work - but I felt I'd seen it before. I noticed the set being moved and the revolve revoliving too often in ways which seemed to slow down the dramatic momentum. I was also unpersuaded by the little square of fore-cloth dropped between each scene and onto which there is some kind of clever light or filmic projection effect applied - this seemed to me obviously intended to emphasise the idea of a world going out of control but it felt overdone.
As I so plainly struggle with the work I don't think I can comment on the individual performances. The thing that most forcibly struck me is that it seems an odd role for Gerhaher since on this hearing it gives so little scope for the warmth, feeling and beauty that so moved me when hearing him as Wolfram in Tannhauser or most recently as Germont pere. Players and singers certainly all give committed performances but none of them got to me emotionally.
I wasn't originally going to blog about this show. As an operagoer of approaching 30 years one has a feeling with a work like this that is so widely recognised as influential that it must be some kind of failing in oneself not to get it. Work has been very stressful in the last few weeks, and I was tired, so perhaps that was a factor (though on other occasions I've been transported from such concerns by live performance). Will I try again? Perhaps for a particular conductor/director combination, or out of completionism at say the Edinburgh Festival, but I do feel the forces would have to be very persuasive. In the meantime, I remain baffled and unmoved.