‘Wozzeck’, English National Opera – review by Julia Pascal.

Carrie Cracknell updates this 1925 German opera to modern Britain and it is a triumph.

Georg Büchner’s radical 1848 fragmentary text, Woyzeck, is considered a watershed in theatre history.  The role of Woyzeck is hailed by as the first presentation of a major character who is a working class man.  It is known as the first great Expressionist drama and, as a result has attracted a steady flow of productions by students and professionals.  Büchner’s rough and gritty text can take multiple interpretations.

This operatic interpretation is well timed and feels like front page news.

Alban Berg’s libretto and score emerges in the aftermath of World War One.  The text explores the experience of the common soldier and has often been seen as socialist artwork where the author refuses to punish his protagonist’s criminality on moral grounds but rather examines him as a victim of a cruel, militaristic elitist society.  It is, of course, implicitly anti-war.

Cracknell’s version sees Wozzeck as the victim of contemporary post-traumatic stress disorder.  In her production Wozzeck is a returnee from Afghanistan.  She is helped by Richard Stokes’ marvellously contemporary translation and she cleverly uses his adaptation to comment on the result of war.  As the English women in the pub cry out in admiration at the young soldiers going to war Cracknell offers us no beefcake, only the vision of coffins draped in Red, White and Blue.  Her sense of satire is terrific.

Leigh Melrose is an astoundingly sympathetic Wozzeck and Sara Jakubiak’s voice and performance is chilling.  Also remarkable is Bryan Register’s macho Drum Major.  The ensemble work elicited by Cracknell, together with leader Janice Graham and conductor Edward Gardner, is thrilling.

The production has subtle references to television reportage, soap opera and news reviews with Tom Scutt’s neo-realistic décor, Naomi Wilkinson and Oliver Townsend’s costumes and Jon Clarke’s lighting design.

This is a highly stimulating mise en scène which deserves many more than the six performances planned for this season.  Hopefully it will be programmed for many years to come.

Julia Pascal © May 2013.