Wozzeck review – from poignancy to utter devastation

City Halls, Glasgow
Conductor Donald Runnicles’ take on Berg’s complex opera was compelling, beautiful and powerfully claustrophobic

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 of it coming 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 displayed more charisma than others, but generally their gestures were compelling enough. In a drama so absorbed in relationships and psychological breakdowns, the fewer stage gubbins the better.

In the title role, German baritone Thomas J Mayer was a late stand-in for Roman Trekel, but was far from second rate. His portrayal was profoundly moving, with superb body language (defeated, then spooked, then volatile) and a potent, supple, haunting voice. Elena Zhidkova’s Marie was sexy, fearful and terrifically sung, and 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 future 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.


Kate Molleson

The GuardianTramp

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