Michael Tanner

Betraying Berg

When Berg’s great tragic masterpiece Wozzeck opened at the Royal Opera in 2002 in Keith Warner’s production, I was more angry and depressed than I have ever been in an opera house. The utter betrayal of everything that Berg, who included in his score extremely detailed specifications as to how it should be staged, indicated, to convey the intense pain of his vision of degradation, made me feel that it should be possible to instigate criminal proceedings on behalf of works and composers subject to such gross abuse. Warner, I felt, treated Wozzeck just as everyone in the opera treats Wozzeck, but whereas Berg writes an overpowering elegy for him, there was nothing that the work could do except suffer at the hands of this butchery, in common with many masterworks of the operatic repertoire. Only a stern sense of critical duty, and a feeling that I may have missed something, since the production received such warm general praise, led me to go and see it in this its first revival. The production remains the same in most respects, certainly in its broad outlines, though there are a few changes, I think, and they struck me as being for the better. It is, nonetheless, deplorable for the most part, since it is built on a ‘concept’ which ensures alienation from the action.

Set in off-white panelling, the suggestion is of a laboratory, though on the left of the stage there is the small accommodation of Marie and her child. The child, played with astonishing aplomb by the eight- or nine-year-old Remi Manzi, is on stage as we enter the auditorium, and throughout the entire action. He witnesses anal sex between his mother and the Drum Major; he fails to toddle off at the end to see his mother’s body, because he is already absorbed in looking at his father’s corpse in one of the four tanks that constitute the most prominent scenery — so those chilling children’s cries at the end, as they play hopscotch, and someone says to him, ‘You, your mother is dead,’ make no effect.

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