Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film and discussion

Made in Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12 May

A special screening of Made in Birmingham: Reggae, Punk, Bhangra followed by a discussion. Professor Roger Shannon, of dge Hill University, will introduce a Q&A session with the film’s director Deborah Aston and executive producer Jez Collins. Famous names from influential Birmingham bands, such as UB40, Musical Youth and many more, talk about their distinctive musical styles in this fascinating documentary.



The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, Northern Stage, Newcastle, from 14 May

This new production of the Chekhov classic is a collaboration between Headlong, “the country’s most exciting touring company” (Daily Telegraph), renowned for their innovative, accessible re-imaginings of classic texts, and the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, this production has been widely praised for its innovative staging.



Houghton Revisited, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, opens 17 May

The art collection of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, sold to Catherine the Great to adorn the Hermitage in St Petersburg, will be reassembled in its spectacular original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time in over 200 years. "Houghton Revisited" runs from 17 May-29 September and is a unique opportunity to view one of the most celebrated art collections assembled in 18th-century Europe. The display will include paintings from the English, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish schools, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Murillo.



A SCREAM AND AN OUTRAGE 1: Oceanic Verses, Barbican Centre, London, 10 May

The "A Scream and an Outrage" weekend kicks off with two world premieres of specially-commissioned new pieces by Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. The BBC Singers open the evening with Muhly’s latest composition, An Outrage; followed by Lang’s new percussion concerto entitled Man Made, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Brooklyn-based innovators So Percussion. The second half features the European premiere concert performance of Italian-American composer Paola Prestini’s new multimedia opera, Oceanic Verses - in a new version for the Barbican stage. It is a multi media opera, a collage of found folk music reworked into a single, contemporary classical music score by the prolific American composer Paola Prestini.


Scratch festival, Battersea Arts Centre, from 17 May

The Scratch festival provides the opportunity to invent the future of theatre, placing the artist and audience in a creative dialogue to develop new ideas. Audiences will be invited to work-in-progress showings from Adrian Howells, Made In China, RashDash and Sleepwalk Collective and others. Past shows to have emerged from this method include Jerry Springer the Opera and The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey.

Bands such as UB40 feature in the documentary Made in Birmingham (Photo: Getty Images)
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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis