Director Keith Warner is known to Royal Opera House audiences mainly for his recent production of Wagner's Ring cycle. Staging the Ring at the nation's premier opera house isn't generally considered an easy gig, but it helps a lot if the Ring you're following is that of Richard Jones and Nigel Lowery, who set the bar so low it's pretty much like being the GP who took over from Harold Shipman. Berg's Wozzeck, however, is a different kettle of fish. I would normally say it's not performed very often, making it all the more important not to waste the opportunity on a silly or capricious production, though in fact the Royal Opera's revival of Keith Warner's 2002 production follows hard on the heels of Carrie Cracknell's down the road at English National Opera.

But whereas Cracknell set the piece firmly in modern Britain, the tawdry barracks of downtrodden squaddies who might easily just have returned from fighting a thankless war in Afghanistan or Iraq, Warner goes for something less specific and entirely more disturbing. Stefanos Lazaridis' set of dirty white tiles might easily be a torture chamber, the blood of past victims not quite cleaned up, with various outdoor elements represented in glass display cabinets, as if all that's left is a museum exhibit of nature rather than the real thing (something of a theme with Warner/Lazaridis, who represented the forest in Act II of Siegfried in a similar way).

Berg started composing the piece in 1914, making his own libretto from Georg Büchner's fragmentary and unfinished play, and if its bleakness and brutality seem to owe something to the horrors of World War One, what's striking is how much it anticipates. Neither Berg nor Büchner ever had to hear the name Josef Mengele, but it's impossible for a modern audience not to be reminded of him by this sadistic crank of a Doctor, putting Wozzeck on bizarre diets to satisfy his own medical curiosity. More generally, and despite the fact that the modernist Berg fell firmly into the Nazi category of entartete Musik(degenerate music), this piece seems the only possible musical expression of the anti-human horrors that were to come. If as Auden claimed, “Accurate scholarship can unearth the whole offence... that has driven a culture mad”, this might be the place for it to start.

On top of its other difficulties, Wozzeck is a very tenor-heavy piece, especially as these are not roles too many tenors would dare, but in Gerhard Siegel as the Captain, John Easterlin as Andres and Endrik Wottrich as the Drum Major, the Royal Opera has risen to the challenge admirably. John Tomlinson makes a convincingly brutish and eccentric Dr “Coffin Nail”, and if most of the storm of applause he received was really for the other roles he's sung on this stage over the past two decades, I would be the last to begrudge him that. Karita Mattila, making her debut in the role of Marie, half virgin Mary and half Mary Magdalene, is both as powerful and lyrical as the role demands, never making an ugly sound whatever vocal extremes she's pushed to.

The proto-Grimes outsider-philosopher Wozzeck is taken by the absurdly versatile Simon Keenlyside (can he really have made his Royal Opera debut in 1989?) He plays Wozzeck as a shuffling simpleton, dressed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca in something like a greyer version of Chinese Communist Party garb, and rises impressively to the vocal and dramatic challenges of this most expressionist of roles. As his and Marie's son, Sebastian Wright maintains admirable poise despite seeing horrors someone his age should never see, and I don't just mean the Royal Opera's backstage facilities.

Mark Elder handled this difficult score with skill and poise, knowing when to give the orchestra its head and when to rein it in, but the abiding impression of the night is Warner and Laziridis' remarkable and chilling production (and the silence! What other opera contains such long periods of complete silence?). Wozzeck's death was a remarkable trompe l'oeil – I genuinely have no idea how they pulled it off (though you will appreciate that we internet reviewers sit somewhat further from the stage than our counterparts from the national dailies...). You won't come out of this grinning ear to ear and humming the tunes, but if you believe that opera should be compelling theatre and shouldn't always be comfortable, this is a truly cathartic experience that fully deserved the long ovation it received.

ROH: Wozzeck, at Royal Opera HouseRoger Smith reviews a revival of Keith Warner's 2002 production of Berg's Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House5