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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

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