Many opera lovers are frightened by Wozzeck. And so they should be, but not for the reasons they think. Yes, Alban Berg was indeed a 20th-century composer of atonal music, and yes, Wozzeck contains some harsh musical moments, but that shouldn’t put anyone off; the hard edges are always appropriate to the drama and the rest of the score is suffused with dark, lyrical beauty. No, what’s frightening about Wozzeck – and particularly this new Royal Opera production by Deborah Warner – is that it will make you confront things that you would far prefer to keep firmly buried in the closet.

Sam Furness (Andres) and Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Like Warner’s hugely successful recent Peter Grimes, Wozzeck is a meditation on human cruelty. But where Grimes deals with the cruelty of crowds, Wozzeck deals with the cruelty of individuals. Our hero is a genuinely good man, but he starts out in a bad place as a traumatised and impoverished veteran and is then subjected to the misdeeds of a succession of characters, each of whom might help him but instead choose to act in ways that will degrade him, one at a time, until his eventual destruction.

Christian Gerhaher (Wozzeck) and Anja Kampe (Marie)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

What Warner brings across, with the help of outstanding acting from her cast, is how casual is the mental violence. The Captain abuses Wozzeck because he is self-obsessed (and also because of class divisions). In similar vein, the Doctor is too wrapped up in his theories to bother to observe his patient. Both tease him horribly simply because as far as they’re concerned, it’s good knockabout fun. Wozzeck’s partner Marie is seduced by the Drum Major for no better reason than that he is persistent and she can’t be bothered to resist; she terrifies her young child with bedtime stories of abduction by gypsies because it never occurs to her to do anything different. When, at the end, the now orphaned child is tormented by his schoolmates, this is just the continuation of a pattern.

Anja Kampe (Marie) and Clay Hilley (Drum Major)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The drama of the opera is on a one way spiral downwards. But Berg’s music tells a different story. The more the opera progresses, the greater is the nobility in the music given to its central character, as if to emphasise the gulf between justice and reality. Christian Gerhaher was magnetic, the rounded warmth of his tone increasing through the 100 minutes of music in which he is the focus of everything. Anja Kampe drifted sweetly through the role of Marie, a character who is crucial to the plot but never a protagonist. Brindley Sherratt brought his huge bass to the essence of self-satisfaction that is the Doctor, contrasting with the reedy tenor of Peter Hoare’s Captain. Clay Hilley was a satisfyingly swaggering Drum Major and other supporting roles were deftly handled.

Brindley Sherratt (Doctor) and Peter Hoare (Captain)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

There are crucial moments on which the action turns, and in the pit, Antonio Pappano made certain that we were left in no doubt about their importance. The Rhapsody, when we are first seeing Wozzeck’s fevered visions, contrasted soothing strings with emphatic brass. There is the huge crescendo that follows Marie’s murder, which built so steadily and smoothly that one was left shaking by its climax; a second crescendo led into a truly manic rendition of the “invention on a rhythm” in the tavern scene, where Marie’s absence is noted and Wozzeck’s world finally unravels. The last of the orchestral interludes was heartbreaking, leading into that awful closing scene of childhood bullying, presented more shockingly than I've ever seen.

Closing scene of Wozzeck
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The opera has no less than 15 scenes, mostly set in different places from each other. You might think this a challenge to any set designer, but Hyemi Shin addressed the problems by using multiple sets which slid in and out behind screens which were cleverly lit by Adam Silverman; so neatly was the timing managed that the transitions in place and mood passed seamlessly from each scene to the next. The video projections of the red landscape of Wozzeck‘s visions were nothing short of virtuosic.

If the performance had an Achilles heel, it lay the orchestral balance. Pappano’s quest for vividness of instrumental playing occasionally went too far and submerged some of the lighter voices; established Wagnerians like Kampe and Sherratt weren’t at risk, and Gerhaher usually rose above the orchestra, but Hoare and some of the other singers simply couldn’t compete.

If you come to this production with an open mind, you will leave the opera house a changed person, more conscious of what it means to be cruel – not viciously, deliberately cruel, but simply accepting of what happens when you behave normally without taking the trouble to be kind. That’s more theatrical power than you’ll see in most operas.