Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wozzeck comes home

"Welcome back, boys." Wozzeck and his captain are centre stage in the pub. The first is nervous, surly, moving too fast, the latter a restless, cruel, distracted druggie. To the right, a coffin draped in a Union Jack doubles up as a table on which to rest beer glasses, plus green toy T-rexes that are being stuffed with bags of drugs. To the left, a staircase; and phantoms, silent ghosts in army gear - not too many, just an occasional reminder, occasionally carrying the corpse of a child. Upstairs, Andres, an amputee in a wheelchair; and Marie in her kitchen, seizing what brightness she can find in the earrings the Drum Major brings her in return for sex.

Wozzeck is based on a play from the early 19th century - an incomplete manuscript that was apparently retrieved from Georg Büchner's coat pocket after the young writer's untimely death, the words in faded ink all but illegible. Yet nearly 200 years later it feels as real as ever. Add a 21st-century perspective on PTSD and the poverty plight that so often faces returning servicemen, many of them deeply scarred physically and mentally, and Wozzeck is a tale of today. ENO's new production by Carrie Cracknell (of the Young Vic) goes for the jugular and twists the knife in it, hard.

So, too, Berg's music. Is this the opera we can't get past? Berg died in 1935, but you can still feel his musical shadow in countless new works; his blend of rigorous structure, contemporary language and heightened emotion has proved - like all the greatest music - both of its time and timeless. Many composers over the decades have wanted to write like Berg. Few have managed to, if any. Ed Gardner and the ENO orchestra, in white-hot form, underscore tragedy with sensitivity, letting the voices shine and the words - a fine, natural-sounding translation by Richard Stokes - come over clear as the daylight that's absent from Wozzeck's world.

Leigh Melrose is a heartbreaking, vulnerable Wozzeck, Sara Jakubiak a strong-voiced, clear-toned Marie. Tom Randle is the Captain, all too believable, and James Morris is inspired casting as the manipulative, sadistic and drug-dealing Doctor. Nobody is sympathetic - yet in this vividly evoked world, everybody is.

Like Anna Picard, writing in the Indy on Sunday, I've met returning ex-servicemen in dire straits. Perhaps by now most of us have. I was waiting for a train in a suburban station a year or two ago when one of them sat down on the bench beside me and started to talk about Afghanistan. It was night, but he was wearing dark glasses. His eyes had been full of sand, and were permanently damaged by it. He took the glasses off to show me, but the image that lingers was not the reddened whites; it was the shattered soul behind them. Hardest part was seeing your best mates killed, he said... His tale was a litany of suffering and destruction. But then, as my train arrived, he told me he'd do it all again. Queen and country, or something like that. He believed they were doing the right thing.

It's one small step from there to Carrie Cracknell's Wozzeck. Get to ENO and see it.