Saturday, January 26, 2019

A welcome new Wozzeck for Opera Australia opens in a showering extravaganza in Sydney

A new Opera Australia production of Austrian composer Alban Berg’s harrowing psychological opera, Wozzeck, opened on Friday night at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a feast of extraordinary artistic stimulation of the highest level in a new, grandly signed William Kentridge production and a 90-minute showering extravaganza driven by an intensely passionate cast. 

John Longmuir as The Captain, Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck
 and Richard Anderson as The Doctor
Composed between 1914 and 1922 within which Europe was in the throes of being ravaged by World War I, Wozzeck was the opera Berg had to write. It was his first, premiering in 1925, and reflects his own affecting experience of war. It’s based, nonetheless, on the unfinished 27-episode play Woyzeck of 1837 by German playwright Georg Büchner. Themes of militarism, bastardisation and sadistic power play are the ingredients with which Berg forged 15 compact scenes that are divided equally across 3 continuous acts. 

A poor soldier of low rank who has witnessed the horrors on the field, Wozzeck is mocked by his superiors, cheated on by his lover (mother of his bastard child) and reduced to a redundant casualty of circumstance. As a mental breakdown unfurls, your heart goes out to him but sympathy is subsequently drained when, in a preconceived act of revenge, he murders his lover, Marie. In a broader view, in tandem with the devastation of war comes the breakdown of morals.

But how do you like your Wozzeck served? The last production mounted by Opera Australia premiered in 1999 when the imaginative mind of director Barrie Kosky created a spare, intensely expressionistic and intimately focused interpretation that elevated the psychological aspect. Kentridge’s lens is wider, his version less personalised, creating a contextualisation of Wozzeck’s crisis with a collage-like bombardment of film and projected images both photographic and sketched. The stage is made up of an intricate jumble of seemingly piled up bric-a-brac around impressions of a blown out home nestled upon it. And not a foot goes wrong when precariously steep duckboard walkways are traversed. 

Lorina Gore as Marie and Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck 
The creative team - designer Sabine Theunissen, costumes Greta Goiris, lighting Urs Schönebaum and projections Catherine Meyburgh - have collaborated to produce a highly fluid and technically accomplished art installation of sorts. Each scene is segued superbly. Decapitated heads, animated mechanical figures, unidentifiable faces in gas masks, a passing zeppelin and an enormous silhouetted crowd are some of the devices used to feel what Wozzeck sees within an array of spaces that balloon and contract and light up in explosive flashes. 

It’s a busy visual fare that might help to assuage a more melody-loving ear. But conductor Andrea Molino matches Kentridge’s gestures head on with Berg’s angular, atonal musical landscape as he sculpts an ever-present tension over the rises, falls and tumbles in the score. Between such strong, weighty components of visuals and music, the demands on the singers is enormous. It struck me whether singing in English rather than German was considered - surtitles would be one less area of the stage to look at, giving greater connection to the cast.

The first scene opens with gusto. Catching the eye and slicing the air in remarkable outbursts of superciliousness as the Captain, tenor John Longmuir took the role by the horns, gave it an electrifying shake and showcased the formidable vocal dexterity he possesses. 

John Daszak as The Drum-Major and Lorina Gore as Marie
After pairing in Opera Australia’s 2018 Green Room Award-winning production of King Roger - a similarly psychologically focused drama from composer Karol Szymanowski - baritone Michael Honeyman and soprano Lorina Gore brought conviction as Wozzeck and Marie. Stooped under a cloud of humiliation, Honeyman built his performance impeccably as the voice increasingly burned with half-declaimed text that was delivered in deeply furrowed lines. Gore effortlessly sailed to glassy penetrating highs as a pitiable, battling Marie. 

John Daszak, who performed in the production's premiere at the Salzburg Festival last year, spread his manhood wide as the pompous Drum Major with his full and roaring tenor. Oily bass Richard Anderson’s freaky Doctor, fine-grained tenor Virgilio Marino’s genial Andres and Dominica Matthews’ rough and ready Margret all made a good impression. And though his appearance is brief as the Madman, it was wonderful to see young tenor Shanul Sharma fit in among esteemed company. 

In the end, you could say Wozzeck gets his just desserts. Punished not by man, Wozzeck drowns in the nearby lake. Left behind is a parent-less child, a little puppet in a grotesque face-mask, his peers unfeeling and distant. Berg and Kentridge leave you with the sense that things are not going to easily change. 

Opera Australia 
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 
Until 15th February, 2019

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

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