Reviewed: Wozzeck and Don Carlo

Terror – eye-opening and mind-expanding – is the great equaliser, as these two productions by the ENO and Royal Opera House make clear.

Wozzeck; Don Carlo
ENO, London Coliseum; Royal Opera House

Tragedy is a great equaliser, uniting opera’s paupers and princes and levelling the class divide in a volley of blood and betrayal. At the Royal Opera House this week Verdi’s Don Carlo – a drama of kings and empire – has hoisted the black flag high, while English National Opera have hustled their audience into crack-dens and council-houses for Berg’s bitter gutter-parable Wozzeck. A classic revival and a new production, a lavish visual spectacle and a brutalist bit of social realism – Don Carlo and Wozzeck share nothing except a core of violence whose ferocity still shocks.

Carrie Cracknell is a natural fit for Berg’s opera – a director with an instinctive grasp of emotional nuance, as the charged restraint of her recent A Doll’s House at the Young Vic so vividly demonstrated. Making her opera-directing debut here she avoids so many of the classic first-time pitfalls simply by placing the score at the centre of her thinking. Too often to theatre or film directors (of whom we’ve seen an endless parade at ENO of late) the music is an irritating incidental rather than an organic part of their drama, and the results can be oddly discordant or just plain wilful.

Her Wozzeck comes dressed in cheap lycra and poached in the stench of yesterday’s half-empty beer cans and half-smoked fags. Nothing remains of the glamour of soldiering Instead we’re confronted with the bleak array of options facing the squaddie returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Death, and a flag-draped coffin, is the best of a short list that also includes paranoid amputee and rapist.

In a brilliant dramatic transposition the doctor becomes a drug-dealer; his “beans” are pills, forced upon the hapless Wozzeck who is at once drug-mule, guinea-pig and customer. If James Morris doesn’t quite achieve the malevolence of Clive Bayley’s Doctor in the recent Welsh National Opera production, then his bonhomous, everyday demeanour is possibly all the more disturbing for its rejection of the trappings of an opera-villain. His efficiently-sung, calm delivery also provides a necessary dramatic anchor for Leigh Melrose’s Wozzeck.

Lost in the phantasmagoric visions that over-take his reality, Melrose finds – and more impressively sustains – an edgy place for Berg’s demanding vocal writing that chafes thrillingly against the orchestral richness from Ed Gardner’s pit. Sara Jukubiak makes an impressive ENO debut as Marie, her Act III song all the more horrific for its vocal beauty, and strong support also comes from Adrian Dwyer as a wheelchair-bound Andres.

In so complete a reworking some sacrifices are inevitably made. Religion is the elephant in the room, lingering in the translated libretto but excised rather awkwardly from the drama, and by compressing Buchner’s social strata into a single miserable slice of exiles and misfits Cracknell also loses a crucial angle on Wozzeck’s misfortunes. Her canny adaptation – nasty, brutish, and mercifully short – is however a serious and thoughtful one. It certainly made me think, yet what it couldn’t quite do in the crucial, final moments was make me feel.

Feeling isn’t an issue in Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 Don Carlo, revived on this occasion by Paul Higgins. Bob Crowley’s stylised, insistently red, black and gold designs frame the action with symbolic emphasis, adding to the monumental quality of Verdi’s epic. And if they teeter on the edge of excess in the violently gilded auto da fe, or threaten to tip over into baroque self-congratulations in the marbled splendour of Carlos V’s tomb then it only serves to raise the stakes on the emotions which must equal these visual for sheer volume.

Don Carlo lives and dies with its cast, and what a cast this current iteration has on offer. Even the absence of soprano Anja Harteros (who pulled out after opening night) doesn’t diminish its attractions, with Lianna Haroutounian bringing a girlishness, a dramatic vulnerability to Elisabetta that Harteros, in her vocal peerlessness, could never quite achieve. Acts IV and V put Haroutounian to a test no less daunting than that the heretics faced a few scenes earlier, and she rises with unobtrusive skill to the occasion, never losing the role among its technical demands.

It helps that she is partnered with Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Carlos, perhaps the best singing-actor of his generation, and a tenor who opts for vocal colour over force every time – crucial in this slow-burn tragedy where the minutiae of emotion need to be felt to keep the screw turning act after act. Eric Halfvarson’s Grand Inquisitor is a glorious grotesque, waddling and oozing his way across the stage to Verdi’s vivid musical accompaniment, and bringing the horror to balance Mariusz Kwiecien’s gallant Rodrigo. Only Dusica Bijelic’s page Tebaldo blots the elegant vocal patterning of this cast, blurting rather shrill at the top, and never quite settling into a happy relationship with Pappano’s orchestra.

Don Carlo is an opera of extremes that must all be kept in balance if it is not to topple under the weight of its own excesses. Pappano is a master of controlled-impetuosity, ordered chaos, and is his instinctive, paradoxical feel for Verdi’s score that coheres this revival. You’ll be harrowed and hurt by an evening spent with this Don Carlo, but wonderfully so. Terror – eye-opening and mind-expanding – is the order of the day at both ENO and the Royal Opera this week, but what a way to face those Gothic ghosts.

Anja Harteros as Elisabette di Valois and Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House. Image: ROH.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era