Lyric Opera of Chicago: “Wozzeck”

Chicago, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2015-2016 Season
Opera in three acts in German. Libretto by the composer, based on Georg Buechner’s play Woyzeck (1836-37, unfinished).
Music by Alban Berg
First Apprentice BRADLEY SMOAK
Members of Chicago Children’s Choir
Orchestra and Chorus of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis
Chorus Master Michael Black
Stage Band Conductor Eric Weimer
Director Sir David McVicar 
Sets and Costumes Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Paul Constable   
Fight Director Nick Sandys
New Production
Chicago, 1 November 2015     
Last year marked the centennial of the onset of World War I, a conflict of previously unimaginable horror and devastation. While many of the poets whose art serves as direct testament to the resulting carnage are justly celebrated, the composers caught up in this upheaval are less well remembered for their wartime duty. Both Maurice Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams served as ambulance drivers on the battlefields of Northern France. The experience left an indelible mark on both men; indeed, Vaughan Williams’ wife Ursula said that it gave her husband “a vivid awareness of how men die.” Alban Berg also served (albeit briefly) and his treatment of Georg Buechner’s play Woyzeck is a harrowing indictment of how men die—not simply as a direct result of war but the gradual, insidious psychological death wrought by militarized societies, institutional oppression, hypocritical religiosity and generational poverty.   Berg first saw Buechner’s work performed in his native Vienna just weeks before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the event that set World War I in motion. Deeply shaken, Berg was quoted as saying to a colleague afterward: “Isn’t it fantastic, incredible?” The play was left in a fragmentary state at the author’s death in 1837, an astonishingly original piece which anticipates many of the literary and artistic movements to come in the 20th century. It is based on the real-life chronicle of a soldier who killed his common-law wife and was publically executed for his crime. Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher and mentor, thought it a poor subject for an opera but history has proven otherwise. The compositional brilliance of the score is well known, incorporating a variety of musical structures including fugue, passacaglia and variations, all rendered in the atonal language Schoenberg and his acolytes were pioneering as members of the so-called Second Viennese School. But Wozzeck is no cold academic exercise. Like the works of Benjamin Britten (a composer who idolized Berg and hoped—unsuccessfully—to study with him), Wozzeck succeeds through the emotional immediacy and universality of the dramatic situation.  The trauma that accompanied World War I affected every stratum of European society. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s made this collective social trauma into the conceptual starting point of its current new production of Berg’s Wozzeck. Brilliantly directed by Sir David McVicar, this production proved one of the most shattering experiences in this writer’s almost 30-year history of attending performances by the company. Updated to the 1920’s, the stage picture was dominated by a giant war memorial, engraved with the names of fallen troops, a helmet resting on the shroud of an anonymous soldier, whose face was hidden with his clenched fist raised seemingly in protest. Borrowing from Bertolt Brecht and his “epic theater” techniques, McVicar utilized a half curtain across the entire length of stage, manually drawn to allow for lightning-rapid scene changes and ultimate dramatic punctuation. Vicki Mortimer’s sets and costumes also located the production in the visual aesthetic of the opera’s 1925 world premiere.      McVicar’s approach never settled for grotesquerie or nightmarish surrealism to score points. Man’s inhumanity to man is frightening enough and he told the story with emphasis given to the toll taken on an impoverished soldier by his sadistic captain and the doctor who pays him for participating in a series of inhumane medical experiments that unhinge his already sensitive mind. Only in the tavern scenes were we allowed to discern the delusional outlines of Wozzeck’s perception: an industrial hookah contraption assisted the patrons in anesthetizing their psychic pain while several members of the stage band performed in drag (and from memory, it should be noted). The Fool (Brenton Ryan) was depicted here as a painted fop, recalling Joel Grey’s master-of-ceremonies character from Cabaret. But the keynote to McVicar’s work was the suffering that results from brutalized vulnerability. The ghoulish accoutrements of the Doctor’s lab were particularly frightening and eerily prophetic of the atrocities eventually exposed in Nazi death camps. The squalor of Marie’s abode and economic deprivation visited upon both her and her son by Wozzeck are presented with unvarnished harshness.  Not everything worked perfectly. The sexual dance between Marie and the Drum Major preceding her seduction and downfall was unfocused and featured a lot of unmotivated wandering and lurching by both players. Wozzeck’s drowning was more awkward than usual, as he descended clumsily into a poorly established body of water upstage of the footlights. But these were minor blemishes in an otherwise searing presentation. The final tableau, with the little boy shackling himself to the same instrument of his father’s oppression and suggesting the continuation of a cycle of trauma, was haunting in the extreme.      McVicar’s potent staging was inhabited by an ensemble of fine singing actors. In the title role, Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny made an outstanding impression. His refined, even elegant instrument might have seemed wasted in a part notorious for shouting and excessive emoting but instead made manifest the latent tenderness and poetic stature of man whose attempts to communicate become increasingly incomprehensible due to exhaustion, starvation and intensifying psychosis. Konieczny is already an established star at the Vienna State Opera but it is hoped he will find time for many a return visit to Chicago. As Marie, Angela Denoke displayed an instrument strongly reminiscent of Anja Silja, an earlier exponent of the role at Lyric Opera: tonally white and colorless, with an unruly top register and beset by an intrusive tremolo. But like Silja, she cannot be faulted in matters of expression and her musicianship and feeling for Sprechstimme (a hybrid of speech and singing characteristic of this period in music) were impeccable. Furthermore, Denoke presented the character with welcome complexity, settling for neither easy sentimentality nor vulgarity.  Gerhard Siegel was both repulsive and touching as the paranoid, self-rationalizing Captain and he truly sang the part, rather than a parody of how to perform “modern” opera. Stefan Vinke’s Drum Major was similarly strong in the vocal department while Brindley Sherratt brought a quiet ruthlessness and sinister efficiency to his portrayal of the Doctor. David Portillo offered a smoothly sung Andres but was dramatically tentative. In contrast, Jill Grove’s bodacious and blondined Margaret threatened to burst out of the stage picture, her imposing and important voice deserving of a better showcase. Bradley Smoak and Anthony Clark Evans were riveting as the Two Apprentices, with Alec Carlson completing the adult cast as a Soldier. Zachary Uzarraga touched every heart as the Child of Marie and Wozzeck, his acting as stirring and inspired as the grownups around him.
Music Director Sir Andrew Davis was masterful on the podium. He mined the numerous interludes for their full editorial commentary, illuminated the lyrical episodes by eliciting orchestral playing of exquisite detail and applied an expertly gauged sense of climax to the entire performance. The final interlude with its repetition of the famous “Wir arme Leut” (“We poor people”) motif was overwhelming in its explosive sense of release. The various instrumental solos were superbly executed by the members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra while assistant conductor Eric Weimer helped to insure there was seamless coordination between stage and pit during the many banda sections of the piece.
In summary, this is a production of staggering accomplishment by all concerned. The story of Wozzeck, Marie and their little boy is every bit as cathartic as the more melodically accessible Madama Butterfly by Puccini. But Berg highlights the institutional and societal forces that have led to a similar outcome. There was no escape, no way to not see how we are complicit in the slow murder of the underprivileged–the vivid awareness of how men die. It also humanized the untold story of countless people every day, in ways that renewed compassion and empathy. Here was art doing its job. This was opera at its most meaningful. Photo Andrew Cioffi & Cory Weaver