With so much in its favour, Berg's 1922 opera needs little directorial help. First there's the sheer force of the narrative: a poor soldier offers himself up for medical experimentation only, after suffering endless abuse and exploitation, to end up murdering his girlfriend and committing suicide. There's the watertight structure, both dramatically and musically. Then there's Berg's visceral, chillingly seductive score. But it takes a clear-headed director to allow these elements to speak for themselves, without relying on tenuous metaphors and horror-movie clichés. Keith Warner's perceptive 2002 production – now revived at the Royal Opera House – does just that. His 'Wozzeck' unfolds in a laboratory, filled with eerie shapes and shadows, where the title character's disintegration to lab rat is heartbreakingly played out. The tone is set from the start with a labelled diagram of a brain on the drop curtain. The final scene hammers the point home as Wozzeck lies drowned, reduced to a mere human specimen, in a blood-filled display cabinet.
It adds up to a powerful concept, punctuated by haunting visions from Wozzeck's paranoid imagination. And the singers bring it vividly to life: Simon Keenlyside is utterly believable as the doomed title character, helpless as a bewildered child in the face of Gerhard Siegel's brutish Captain and John Tomlinson's comically sinister Doctor. The only disappointment is Karita Mattila's ripe-voiced but rather wooden Marie. The most luscious sounds, however, came from the orchestra pit, where conductor Sir Mark Elder savoured every last drop of Berg's decadently lyrical music. Hannah Nepil