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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood