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Berg is beautiful

Birmingham Opera's violent Votzek could be the best thing you'll see all year.

Fiona Maddocks
Sunday February 25, 2001
The Observer

Votzek Birmingham Opera Company, The Warehouse, Birmingham

Blinding spotlights dazzle you when you first enter the cavernous space. As you grow accustomed to their searing brightness, you notice a pool of blood at your feet. Gruesome body parts and blackened animal corpses dangle menacingly. A sorrowful-looking man asks you to sign a petition against domestic violence before police move him on. Men in white coats wielding instruments of medical torture stare down on their human specimens. As you step back to allow the emergency services to pass, you find yourself crushed against a large chemical tank of stagnant liquid in which human X-rays float. In one corner an old car has been abandoned. Elsewhere, a bus shelter, telephone box and DIY garden shed stand as icons of urban life.

No one goes to a Graham Vick production for a cosy night out, as Glyndebourne audiences well know. His version of Berg's Wozzeck , here spelled Votzek, reached new levels of horror. It proved, too, the abiding relevance of Berg's work, written between 1914 and 1922 and based on Büchner's play of nearly a century earlier. The setting was a warehouse in Birmingham. The promenade production invited audiences to participate in the action. Indeed it was impossible to resist. The orchestra sat at one end in an open-sided box with its own chintzy wallpaper, the one sign of comfort. The singer-actors - for in this brilliantly cast and vigorously physical show, they were equally - moved from place to place for each of the short scenes. We followed. Through the skill of Vick's direction, Jonathan Fensom's inspired designs and Robert Jones's explicit lighting, we knew exactly where to turn, where to look. It is the best thing I've seen this year. In the middle of February that may seem empty praise. I suspect I may still say the same in December.

Vick believes that Berg's portrayal of an oppressed and simple soldier offers a natural starting point for audiences new to opera. Hence his choice to launch the new Birmingham Opera Company, an evolution of City of Birmingham Touring Opera. Not everyone would share that view. Few operas match Wozzeck for sheer desolation and psychological travail, and in its sectional structure (Berg's original has 15 scenes) it departs from most examples of the form. Musically, too, with its ravishing orchestral interludes and absence of conventional arias, its methods are hardly typical. It does, however, have extraordinary emotional impact. It also lends itself perfectly to the grand-scale community event achieved here. A core group of 40 people - with additional performers from an Asian young people's theatre, a pensioners' group and local colleges - transformed themselves into prostitutes and psychiatrists, housewives and disco dancers, a Car-Crash Victim and a Mannequin Obsessive Raver. As Votzek and Marie, Andrew Slater and Tara Harrison were, quite simply, exemplary. If they were film stars, they would deserve Oscars. Ronald Samm, Andrew Forbes-Lane, Keel Watson and others gave committed support. John Rea's skilful reduction of the score to 21 players, Tim Lole's conducting and the expert playing of the musicians completed this enthralling evening.

Further performances of Votzek at Aircraft Hangar No 2, Speke Road, Liverpool L24 on 9 and 10 March; Concord Sports Centre, Sheffield on 23 & 24 March; then in Porto, Portugal, European City of Culture 2001, 6 & 7 April

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001