In this Wozzeck, there is no stage curtain. Instead, in Vicki Mortimer and David McVicar’s production, a long sheet – the kind used to separate patients in crowded hospital rooms – is drawn across the front of the stage, opening and closing at varying speeds to accommodate scene changes. The regular punctuations of the sheet give the opera’s action a fresco-like quality of flatness and stillness, which is emphasized by the frequent uses of shadows projected on screens at varying stage depths. The effect is to render the opera’s visceral and histrionic excesses with a kind of symbolic lightness – depravity frozen in tableaux.

In some ways, the musical priorities on opening night mirrored the abstracting effects of the production. Bringing out the unabashed colour and detail of the score, Sir Andrew Davis delivered a superb reading in the pit, tightly coherent and with exemplary attentiveness to articulation. Some of the best brass writing in opera is in Wozzeck, and the sound from the orchestra was consistently balanced with a hint of edge, as if always on the cusp of becoming overwhelmed. This attentiveness to Berg’s orchestral writing came at some cost to the singers, many of whom only easily cleared the orchestra in their high ranges, or when delivering realist shouts and barks. Unless the balance between stage and pit is calibrated in future performances, this Wozzeck will remain less a drama than a kind of staged tone poem, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Davis clearly relishes this score, and provides deep pleasures.

Yet – at least from my position on the floor – the thick middles of Berg’s textures almost entirely swallowed the low ranges of many a valiant singer. Of what came through, one could detect that Tomasz Konieczny made for a remarkably vulnerable Wozzeck: his bass-baritone is warm and focused, and the character was acted with a certain directness of emotion that is missing from the caricatured doctor and captain, played respectively by Brindley Sherratt and Gerhard Siegel. These, by contrast, are hilariously vivid and devoid of inner turmoil, as if the machine had been left running with no operator present. They are theatrically manic where Konieczny alternates between troubled and enraged.

Angela Denoke was a rare Marie who seemed neither listless nor anguished, but rather cornered and pragmatic: her movements on stage were assured, moving between men in a forthright way that belied her radically reduced conditions. Her voice has a rich, buttery middle, which she kept remarkably controlled through all the dramas the plot puts her through. She manages, in fact, the difficult feat of summoning a tremendous amount of stage presence without making mincemeat of the scenery.

Eschewing intermissions, this performance clocks in at a lean 100 minutes, a fact that was prominent in the Lyric’s marketing of the opera. One cannot help but wonder if that promise was also a reassurance – that, as a sadistic doctor might coo to his writhing victim, it will all be over quickly. If audience boredom or impatience was a factor in the musical decisions that informed the performance, that is a shame, because the performance’s continually brisk pace might have been alleviated with a few moments of expansiveness or pensiveness here and there, to deepen the score’s brights and shadows. The performance we have, however, remains an effective, forceful, and compelling reading of the opera's score that more than rewards the attention it requires. 

***11