Review: Wozzeck

First published in the Guardian on 24 October, 2014

There was a poignancy to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Wozzeck before it even began. This performance came the day after Donald Runnicles announced he will be standing down as the orchestra’s chief conductor in 2016, a post in which he has done great things. No other company would present Alban Berg’s formidably complex masterpiece in Scotland these days. With a mediocre La Cenerentola currently playing up the road at the Theatre Royal, there’s fat chance from Scottish Opera.

If the evening began poignantly it ended, as a powerful performance of Berg’s opera must, in utter devastation. Kenneth Richardson’s semi-staging had the singers acting on a sliver of stage with a handful of props and costumes. Some mustered more charisma than others; generally their gestures were compelling enough. In a drama so absorbed in relationships and psychological breakdown, the fewer stage gubbins the better anyway.

German baritone Thomas J Mayer played the title role as a late stand-in for Roman Trekel but far from second rate. His portrayal was profoundly moving, with superb body language (now defeated, now spooked, now volatile) and a potent, supple, haunting voice. Elena Zhidkova’s Marie was sexy, fearful and terrifically sung; the rest of the cast, BBC Singers and choristers of St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh were all strong.

The orchestral commentary was immense, surging up between the scenes with gripping intensity – that coruscating scream as Marie submits to the Drum Major, those terrifying crescendos after Wozzeck has stabbed her. Runnicles found glittering beauty, too, in Berg’s magical evocations of nightfall. At times the orchestra was probably too loud for the singers; no doubt adjustments will be made for the BBC Radio 3 broadcast. Here, the orchestra’s dominance was powerfully claustrophobic – as though the characters were helplessly in freefall, overwhelmed by something bigger than themselves.