Operas really doesn’t get much bleaker than Wozzeck, a story founded on grim poverty, social exclusion, betrayal, murder and suicide. That Deborah Warner is behind this new take on Alban Berg’s epic slice of grimness is one of the best reasons to grab a ticket. She did wonders with Peter Grimes last year and it was Berg’s atonal masterpiece that arguably gave Benjamin Britten the artistic space to make his own mark on history. Wozzeck is scary, it’s harsh and it can suck the soul right out you.

Far from being a Wagnerian tale of gods and princes, Berg relates the story of a man whose life is literally all about shit and death: when not paying brief visits to his partner Marie and his illegitimate son, our eponymous hero works as a toilet attendant and mortuary cleaner. Even before the orchestra have a chance to strike up, Warner presents us with a wall of urinals and WCs and actors walking on stage to make use of them. We can only imagine what the smell is like in there and the scarcity of life options that would force someone to take on this miserable job.

Things get worse for him when his boss, a moralising Captain, condescends and bullies him about his home situation leaving Wozzeck to respond “Jawohl, Kapitan”. Things are no better when he is with the mortician, a doctor who belittles Wozzeck’s life. From this uneviable position, things only get worse. Marie is seduced by a drum major who later makes no effort to hide this from the benighted cuckold. Wozzeck leaves his partner and child and picks a fight with the drum major who beats him soundly. Before long, he is hallucinating and losing his sanity and from there, a sad end that leaves his child an orphan is inevitable.

This is one of the last chances to Antonio Pappano take up the ROH baton. He will leave Covent Garden at the end of his 2023-2024 season after over 20 years as its music director, a position he took up when he was just 42. His pre-eminent position was demonstrated recently when he was chosen to direct the orchestra at the coronation of Charles III and Camilla. Here, he drives the musicians with verve, pushing them to lean ever harder into Berg’s strident music. There’s a darkness in the rhythms and music, with martial themes exposed through drum rolls.

Bavarian baritone Christian Gerhaher is a formidable presence as Wozzeck and, dressed in dirty overalls, he invokes sympathy from the off. Gerhaher is intelligent and serious singer who finished his medical studies and qualified as a doctor before dedicating his life to singing. He is patently not a man who is afraid of this stark role and he strongly believes in the importance of serious music. He debuted at the ROH in 2010 in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser and his experience as one of the finest lieder singers of his generation stands him in good stead; Berg’s score is richly infused with Mahlerian motifs.

The more we see of Gerhaher, the more we are drawn into Wozzeck’s world such is his charisma. Opposite him, German-Italian soprano Anje Kampe strikes the right tone of sympathy and desperation for Marie. We barely need Berg’s libretto to understand her anguish and heartbreak. Peter Hoare (Captain), Brindley Sherratt (Doctor) and Clay Hilley (Drum Major) carry off enough dramatic ballast to make Wozzeck’s situation all the more relatable and the denouement all the more explicable. Hyemi Shin’s set design is not just loos and mortuary slabs. The building designs which fall from above render Marie’s loneliness and isolation when at home with her child all the more palpable. A blazing red sun serves an iconic backdrop to the climactic scenes. Barracks and bars are realised minimally but sufficient to embrace the squalid behaviour therein.

Wozzeck is not an easy ride by any stretch of the imagination but Warner does a magnificent job with a work which is often nihilistic yet majestic.

Wozzeck continues at the Royal Opera House until 7 June.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton