First staged in 1925, Wozzeck was Alban Berg's first opera, based on the unfinished 1836 play by Georg Büchner. Even today, it stands as a radical work, casting aside as it did many of the conventions of traditional opera, from the stories allowed within the form to its very musical grammar – paving the way for many subsequent modern and postmodern metamorphoses of the form (Birtwistle, Saariaho, Glass).
As such, even with its contemporary status as a classic, it's a refreshing choice for Geneva's Grand Théâtre, whose tastes can feel a little safe. In fact, it's an excellent choice for the Grand Théâtre, because it actually does very well with a straight staging – and it's nice to see the temptation to make Wozzeck ever more dark and abstract resisted. A revival of Sir David McVicar's 2015 Lyric Opera staging by Daniel Ellis, this production at the Opéra des Nations is strong and compelling.
The story is smoothly transposed to the First World War – Berg's war, rather than Büchner's. Wozzeck is the tragedy of the anonymous soldier, the common man alienated from his work and the values he's meant to fight for: God, country, bourgeois morality. The huge, extradiagetic cenotaph standing centre-stage embodies this disconnection, an homage to the war dead fundamentally separate from their bodies.
One real strong point of this production is the focus on the demented nature of the secondary characters, the bullies who chip away at Wozzeck's life coin by coin and sneer by sneer: the Doctor and the Captain, their nervous energies amped up to complement Wozzeck's rather than tamped down as a foil. It helps that both Tom Fox and Stephan Rügamer are excellent singers and actors – Fox was particularly impressive, playing easily across the huge tessitura the role of the Doctor demands, with a particularly beautiful high range. Together, one could easily imagine them alone driving a man insane.
Tension begins to swell. Christopher Maravich's lighting, adapted by Paule Constable, contributes to this in a quite physical sense – the cold grey light of the opening gradually fading into warm, gaslit sepia tones as the story swells towards its emotional climax; a harsh blast of white light when the Drum Major enters the barracks, the final trigger for Wozzeck's ultimate act of violence.
Concurrently, Vicki Mortimer's set does a splendid job of toeing the line between gritty realism and burlesque satire, from the mildew-stained curtains that serve as scene dividers to the almost steampunk vision of the tavern, complete with beer drunk from plastic hoses hooked to a rusty iron pipe. That said, the stagecraft necessary to pull all this off felt clumsy, full of clanking noises and running feet, and so time-consuming at one point that you could see the lights flicker across the hall as people checked their phones.
At the centre of this gruesome world, Wozzeck himself is portrayed with a great deal of sympathy – just a few nightmares too far gone to be a philosopher, a poet, a witness to the true beauty and horror of his environment. In the title role, Mark Stone commands the stage, a tortured electricity shining in his wide eyes and nervous salutes. There are some real standout moments: his deep growl on "Still! Alles still", his splendid Sprachgesang – "Ich seh' nichts." Still, there is a level of physical restraint to him, indeed to the whole production. It may be unsustainable to go full Klaus Kinski for a whole run, but could he bang his fist on the floor just a little harder? Could it all be just a little rougher, a little more real?