Thomas J Mayer as Wozzeck All images © BBC / Alex Woodward

It takes a brave man to programme a single performance of Berg’s Wozzeck on a damp Thursday evening in Glasgow. But Donald Runnicles is such a man. In his five years at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra he has proved adept at making the implausible possible, and turning the ordinary into something extraordinary. With the BBC in support, and its renewed commitment to recording and broadcasting from all corners of the UK, Runnicles (pictured in rehearsal below) is maybe not so much brave as canny – he has a showman’s eye for a concert programme that will challenge and entertain; one that breaks the mould yet still brings in a crowd.

Donald RunniclesAnd so it was that a decent audience filed into Glasgow’s City Halls for this semi-staged Wozzeck. It’s worth mentioning that although it was not a full house, this was a young and excitable gathering, by classical concert standards, with an unusually high proportion of famous composers and festival directors in its midst. If this were Mahler’s Fifth, I observed to my neighbour, the hall would be full. “Well I suppose it’s more like Mahler’s 17th,” was his perspicacious reply.

As befits Runnicles the showman, this was a flamboyant Wozzeck. The vast orchestra filled one half of the hall. Double timpani, two bass drums, an assortment of percussion, piano, celesta, accordion and a small army of brass and strings created a magnificent sound that came close to saturation in a hall that feels bigger than it really is (it has less than half the audience capacity of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, for instance). Berg’s extraordinary orchestration, under Runnicles, was in vivid Technicolor. Menace and frivolity churn restlessly beneath the surface of the tavern music as Marie (Elena Zhidkova) and the Drum Major (Thomas Blondelle) dance under the fatally jealous eye of Wozzeck (Thomas J Mayer replacing Roman Trekel at short notice). The orchestral crescendi that follow Marie’s anguished “Don’t touch me!” were both massive and wonderfully rich – not just noise but layers and layers of repressed violence.

As a befits a semi-staged performance there was some limited direction by Kenneth Richardson, with the action confined to a narrow stage extension behind the conductor’s podium. Although there was little attempt at realism (Marie scuttled off after being murdered), this arrangement allows a bit more flexibility than concert performances where it is impossible to pass behind the conductor. One of the apprentices was sufficiently in character to stagger in from the wings and offer his brandy bottle to the pianist for a swig as he filed past. All the cast sang from memory, which is probably the single most important difference between this and opera recitals where the acting is little more than gestures from behind a music stand. Readers who spot the microphones in the photographs can be reassured that no-one was amplified: these were for the BBC’s recording engineers to capture singers who seldom stood still in front of the fixed microphones.

Elena Zhidkova with Thomas BlondelleThe set consisted of an IKEA bench and the props little more than a notebook clutched by the doctor (Nathan Berg). Costumes were everyday, with the exception of a flowing red dress worn by
Elena Zhidkova's Marie (pictured right with Blondelle). There were some limited lighting effects, including a vivid red moon projected on the back wall. Also on the back wall was the surtitle machine, difficult to read thanks to the profusion of hanging microphone cables. This is something that in future could easily be rectified.

With limited scope for the stage director to interfere with the opera, it was the music that sold this show. And although it sounds glib I can truthfully say that there was not a single performance less than excellent, and that includes all the soloists, about 20 of the BBC Singers, and a small children’s choir from St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, whose gruesome task it is to make us realise at the end of the opera that we have witnessed not just a great work of art but a terrible crime. Rumour has it that Runnicles was delighted to secure his replacement Wozzeck – together with Marie he led a stellar cast that also included Tom Randle, Michael Pflumm, and Jennifer Johnston. We are unlikely to witness so audacious and brilliant an operatic performance in Scotland for some time, but many in the audience will wonder if this could mark the beginning of something new, a means of witnessing live such operas that lie outside the current financial or artistic scope of Scottish Opera. Let us hope that Runnicles is encouraged to do more.

Berg’s extraordinary orchestration, under Runnicles, was in vivid Technicolor

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