Carrie Cracknell’s ENO production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck was a mixture of immensely powerful and marginally confusing in parts – for what is essentially a very simple story line, the plot felt slightly complicated. However, the last thirty minutes, from when Wozzeck finally kills his wife Marie, are hugely intense, powerful and gripping.
Imagery and psychological turmoil are the foundations of Berg’s opera, and Cracknell’s representations were impressive. She joined together the hallucinatory world of Berg’s mind with the realism of a plot that is steeped in class structure and tragedy. A hallucinatory figure with a woman slung over his shoulder glides around the stage, and a small boy follows Wozzeck as his shadow; perhaps of Wozzeck’s former self, or perhaps reminding him of his son. Interestingly, though not entirely understandably, this production inverts a momentous part of Berg’s story. In the original, Wozzeck drowns himself while trying to better hide the knife he used to kill Marie, hallucinating the blood rising around him and seeing a red moon. In this production however, Wozzeck slices his throat as he did Marie’s, and rather than the imaginary blood rising, the real blood in this production tumbles down the walls, reversing Berg’s imagery. And yet the music is still representing water rising, anathema to the falling blood. Whilst visually powerful, there is a mis-alignment between the music and imagery at a point where unity would be stronger.
The star of this production was Wozzeck’s son. Having sent most of the opera hiding under a table, upon discovering his parents with sliced necks on the kitchen table, he steps back, not in fear, but simply to get his coat and toy dinosaur and calmly walk out of the flat. His silence is broken right at the end of the opera when he simply says ‘hip hop’ to his toy.
As Anthony Pople writes, since the musical language of Wozzeck is based on continual cross-reference and counterpoint with a highly tight, formal structure, there is a sense of inevitability from the beginning. The music completes a full circle – the opening bar could link with the last – and in doing so Berg raises the notion that tragedy can continue repeating itself eternally. It is this notion of inevitable tragedy that adds such tension to the opera, so that when Marie is killed, the feeling is mostly one of relief.
Carrie Cracknell discusses her production, highlighting the differences between directing theatre and opera. Whilst actors gradually build their characters together in rehearsals, singers come to the first rehearsal with so much preparation that they already have their own performances. And ultimately, ‘whatever you try and bring to the opera, or put into the staging, it is the music driving everything forward. Berg’s dramaturgy is incredible, every note is driving the story forward and there isn’t any wasted space in the music. It’s been an absolute gift to direct from that perspective.’