Making her opera-directing debut, Carrie Cracknell recasts the tormented protagonist of Alban Berg’s masterpiece ‘Wozzeck’ as a present-day squaddie, haunted by service in the Middle East and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in this production for English National Opera. It’s an inspired updating, with the sight of buzzcuts, tattoos and union-flag-draped coffins supplying throat-grabbing immediacy to her staging of Berg’s harrowing work.
Tom Scutt’s cutaway, split-level set makes a big impact, too, as Leigh Melrose’s titular soldier, ground down by poverty and brutal exploitation, cracks up and murders his unfaithful common-law wife, Sara Jakubiak’s Marie. And Cracknell’s superbly focused direction intensifies the opera’s mood of anguish as the action moves up and down from one clammy interior scene to the next, including the drab pub where Wozzeck’s chief persecutors hold court and Marie’s cramped council flat, where her timid young son (Harry Polden) witnesses the unfolding tragedy.
The setting is squalid and the action unremittingly bleak, but Melrose and Jakubiak still invest their benighted characters with a desperate humanity. Both sing thrillingly, and there is impressive support from Tom Randle’s bullying bare-chested Captain, James Morris’s sadistic, drug-dealing Doctor and Bryan Register’s braying Drum Major. The evening’s undoubted hero, though, is conductor Edward Gardner, who conveys all the agony and anger, cruelty and compassion contained in the astonishing score. Berg’s music is famously complex and mathematically precise, but Gardner amply proves that it has an expressive force and emotional directness that is profoundly moving. Jason Best