A Truly Dramatic Staging: Wozzeck at the South Bank Centre

Alban Berg’s 20th-century masterpiece Wozzeck could be described as a play set to music. Completed in 1922, Berg’s adaptation of George Büchner’s play (spelt as Woyzeck) is largely true to the original script. If the play came before the music, it may be assumed that the opera is reliant upon the original play, including its onstage action, scenery, props and costumes.

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Marie) | © Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Marie) | © Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre

Yet Friday night’s concert at the Southbank Centre stripped Wozzeck of all these facets, leaving only Berg’s unadulterated musical score. Would this performance by the Philharmonia Zurich and their conductor Fabio Luisi still reveal the incredible drama of Wozzeck, or would a large part of what makes this pieces one of the great works of the first half of the 20th century be lost?

But in taking the orchestra out of the pit and putting them centre stage, this concert performance put the spotlight on Berg’s music and highlighted just how much it adds to the overall drama. The Philharmonia Zurich enjoyed being the centre of attention, whilst remaining firmly responsive to their conductor. A hugely climatic orchestral build-up at the end of act 1 was brought shockingly and flawlessly back down to barely there held strings. They remained a seamless extension to the singers too. During Wozzeck’s dialogue with the Captain and then Andre in the two opening scenes, the orchestra’s highly changeable music magnified the characters’ swaying emotions. Later, when Wozzeck’s girlfriend Marie flirts with the passing Drum Major, the Philharmonia Zurich’s grotesque music illuminated the underlying ugliness of her actions.

Marie was presented as the most interesting and complex character in this performance. Berg’s music presents her promiscuity as ugly, but Gun-Brit Barkmin’s also captured her conflicted pain. Her voice was powerful and occasionally shrill, which excellently portrayed her muddled character as both a victim and a perpetuator of evil. Called in at the last minute to replace Christian Gehaher as the downtrodden Wozzeck, Leigh Melrose’s performance was more understated. But in avoiding melodrama, his descent into madness after murdering Marie became even more pitiful and inescapable.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Captain) and Leigh Melrose (Wozzeck) | © Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Captain) and Leigh Melrose (Wozzeck) | © Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre

This might have been a concert performance, but the singers were still dedicated to the drama. Instead of gormlessly looking out to the audience, conversations between characters were directed at each other. The Drum Major and Marie held each other on stage, and the drunks in the tavern swayed disorientated around the stage.

Concert performances cannot be expected to match a fully staged opera, yet Friday night’s concert was still eager to bring out all of the opera’s drama. A concert performance of course misses many things from the original, but these can be more than satisfyingly replaced with a greater focus on what remains.

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