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Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Carrie Cracknell's Wootton Bassett Wozzeck is the most assured ENO debut for years, giving us a vision of Berg’s masterpiece that chills to the bone. Theatre wunderkind Rupert Goold was down to direct ENO’s new production, his first opera since the Chinese restaurant Turandot in 2009, but other projects got in the way. His replacement made her name in fringe theatre, so filling the Coliseum’s huge stage could have proved a tough one. In the event, Cracknell’s transition from theatre to opera appears effortless.

Designer Tom Scutt confines the action to a boxy, multi-levelled complex of rooms, with not a spark of daylight to be seen.  Gone are the marshes, open fields and blood-red moon to be replaced by a stifling, claustrophobic world of cruddy NAAFI bars and under-funded military living quarters. Cracknell’s latest theatre triumph was the Young Vic A Doll’s House and she seems to be using similar imagery to show Marie every bit as crushed by her environment as Ibsen’s heroine. This time there’s no escape.  

If there’s a weakness in the staging, it’s the all too obvious contemporary parallels; chavs and slags, and visual references to current wars, are fast becoming clichés on the opera stage but Cracknell and her team execute them brilliantly and they’re certainly not out of place in Wozzeck’s grimy, low-life world.   

Wozzeck’s pal Andres is a wheelchair-bound amputee, the Idiot a mysterious gas-masked veteran and the sense of a military, let down on their return to the homeland, is all pervasive. The triumphant band parade is replaced with a slow march of Union Jack-clad coffins. Cracknell mounts the tension in waves throughout the performance, quite an achievement for a work that consists of short, detached sketches, culminating in a stunningly and shockingly realized death scene.

The ENO Orchestra is on tremendous form, Edward Gardner coaxing magnificent sounds from them, not least in the orchestral interludes. The brief Act Three Orchester-Überleitung between the murder and tavern scene shakes the building and is as shocking as the visuals. One of the greatest and most influential of the 20th Century, this is a score of rare brilliance and grim beauty. 

The two leads are superb: Leigh Melrose a frantically hapless Wozzeck, a wretch ground down by inhumane superiors, haunted by visions and slowly sinking into mental disintegration, and there’s a simply breathtaking house debut from American soprano Sara Jakubiak as Marie.  Her bible scene is heart-breaking, a last outburst of desperation and thwarted hope, and the presence of her child (Harry Polden) is both horrifying and moving. Tom Randle is a tattooed oaf of a Captain and James Morris, his first appearance in the UK for 17 years, a remarkable presence as the Doctor. Bryan Register’s Drum Major is a swaggering mountain of aggression and Clare Presland’s brief appearances as Margret hauntingly memorable.  

Berg said of Wozzeck: “No one gives heed to anything (the various fugues, inventions, suites, sonata movements, variations and passacaglias) but the vast social implications of the work.” Carrie Cracknell certainly doesn’t ignore the musical complexities, but takes Berg’s thought and delivers an unmissable evening of gripping music-drama.  

- Simon Thomas


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