Military service brutalises. If you’re in any doubt about this, Berg’s short opera Wozzeck should dispel them, and particularly so in Carrie Cracknell’s new production for ENO. The fragmentary play on which Wozzeck is based, by Georg Büchner, originated in a true story of a soldier in the Napoleonic wars and was edited and published after the Franco-Prussian war; Berg wrote the opera in the aftermath of World War I; Cracknell moves it to the British military of today. It could be in any place at any time.

Tom Randle, Leigh Melrose, James Morris © Tristram Kenton / English National Opera
Tom Randle, Leigh Melrose, James Morris
© Tristram Kenton / English National Opera

This performance should also dispel any doubts you might have about Ed Gardner’s credentials as one of the very top opera conductors. Gardner explores every last corner of Berg’s multi-faceted score and brings it to life in dazzlingly rich colours – most of them dark and brooding, but with brief periods of tenderness and flashes of searing intensity. The chord that accompanies Wozzeck’s murder of Marie is an extraordinary musical moment, a crescendo that keeps growing in intensity long after you become certain that the music cannot possibly get any louder – then, after a moment of silence, the music flips into manic, frenzied bar-room piano as Wozzeck returns to the pub where the seeds of the murder were sown.

Wozzeck starts bleak and gets steadily bleaker. The soldier of the title is an educated, humane man who is already showing signs of mental instability in the first scene as he is shaving his Captain, who is himself barking mad. One by one, the people around him accelerate his decline or fail to help; by the end of the opera, he has killed his common law wife Marie and himself. The whole opera is a cry against the horrors of the human condition; it’s only bearable because Berg keeps the music going in relatively short episodes, allowing the steadily building tension on stage to be relaxed.

Carrie Cracknell is an experienced stage director, but this is her first opera. ENO has had its share of disappointments with bringing in directors from outside opera, but this is a magnificent exception. Cracknell conjures up amazing acting performances from her singers, who breathe enormous life into the text. Leigh Melrose is frantic and tortured in the title role; Tom Randle credibly erratic as the Captain, James Morris overblown and self-important as the Doctor, Sara Jakubiak weak-willed as Marie. Vocal performances are good. Jakubiak occasionally veers into strident, but this is perhaps the one opera in the repertoire where that’s appropriate. Melrose can be disarmingly smooth in his more lyrical moments, contrasting with the rapid fire faster passages. Morris is equally smooth in a more stentorian way: here the lyricism of his dreams of medical glory are juxtaposed with horrible irony against the man’s quackery. Bryan Register makes an imposing Drum Major, a tall, large man clothed in military trousers and heavy metal t-shirt, with a voice and swagger to match.

Tom Scutt’s doll’s house set lights up in different portions to depict Marie’s room, the Captain’s quarters, the Doctor’s surgery or the pub. It seems to me that Cracknell has decided that the text doesn’t contain enough explicit military references to set the scene, so she provides a constant visual backwash of military themes – not fighting, but soldiers waiting around clad in gas masks, or wearing dress uniforms parading coffins. It’s all carefully lit so as to create an atmosphere without distracting you from the singers: the lights on these filler elements are only turned up during the orchestral interludes. All in all, it’s an impressive directorial début.

For all this performance’s virtuosity, I can’t deny that Wozzeck makes for an uncomfortable evening’s opera, which won’t be for everyone. Berg’s text is sometimes obscure and allusive, and he spends most of the opera systematically snuffing out each possible candle which might light the way out of misery. It’s riveting stuff, but there’s no room for redemption. Go see it, for the sake of an excellent staging and some truly exceptional playing from Gardner and the ENO orchestra, but bring your mental body armour.