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.
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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge