By Lawrence B. Johnson
CHICAGO — It’s hard to say which made the more striking impression, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s imaginative, brilliant, and devastating new production of Berg’s Wozzeck — or the roaring affirmation of the packed house that saw the opening performance Nov. 1.
Conductor Andrew Davis guided a superb ensemble of singers and the Lyric Opera Orchestra through a performance so fluent, emotionally nuanced, and seemingly effortless that the pervasive atonality of Berg’s score came across not as an obstacle but rather as a palette of expressive possibilities. Such was the manifest effect on an audience that stayed, nearly one and all, to whoop and cheer when the last breath of this great work had wafted into silence.
The performance was as well provided dramatically as it was musically. Director David McVicar’s clear, unmannered approach went directly to the heart of this montage of poverty, paranoia, and despair — the whole sorry, grinding affair heightened by Paule Constable’s lighting design and Vicki Mortimer’s World War I era costumes and cleverly stylized sets fashioned around a cold, hulking monument to the war dead.
For his first opera, begun in 1914 but not completed until nearly a decade later, when the dust had settled from World War I, Berg drew on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, left unfinished at his death in 1837. It centers on an impoverished soldier who tries to provide for his common-law wife Marie and their illegitimate son by submitting to the dehumanizing experiments of a doctor. The poor soldier also suffers the derision of his captain and bears the knowledge that Marie is unfaithful to him. These hardships have pushed Wozzeck into acute paranoia. When we first see him, as the curtain rises, shaving his captain for a little extra money to give Marie, the numbing effect of his situation is instantly evident. We jump into the story’s onrushing events.
In the title role, bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny displayed a rich, agile voice and the credible aspect of a man devoid of hope and fraught with anxiety. His exchanges with the neurotically agitated Captain — tenor Gerhard Siegel in a precisely pitched performance — showed a man reduced to robotic deference but, at the same time, a thinking creature whose probing ruminations on life unnerve his half-witted superior.
To the self-important Doctor (turned with well-gauged nervousness and deceptive vocal finesse by bass Brindley Sherratt), Wozzeck is little more than a lab rat. The Doctor berates Wozzeck for expelling his urine before arriving for his evaluation and then — much as a farmer might slop his pigs — sits the pathetic soldier down with a bucket of beans, his approved nutrition.
Thus, to invoke Hamlet’s phrase, the form and pressure of Berg’s opera might be seen as both a satire of the military and a lament on society’s debasement of the poor. When the Captain rebukes Wozzeck for having a child out of wedlock, the soldier replies that poor people can’t afford the luxury of a moral life. But neither can this existentially condemned man escape his tragic fate. Irrespective of what love has to do with it, Wozzeck feels a deep obligation to Marie and their child, and by the same token he holds her accountable to him. Some of the most powerful moments in this performance addressed the ambiguous and tenuous relationship between Wozzeck and soprano Angela Denoke’s conflicted, vulnerable, sensual Marie.
Berg’s sympathy for this woman struggling just to survive is reflected in vocal writing of exquisite lyricism, notably in the comforting songs she sings to her little boy. The role’s formidable difficulty seemed to melt away in Denoke’s almost off-hand delivery and silvery sound. But she also cut a dramatically convincing figure of a woman bereft and needful and hence drawn to the strutting, handsomely uniformed Drum Major (portrayed by the physically and vocally imposing tenor Stefan Vinke).
The 15 terse scenes of Wozzeck fairly flew by, visually marked off by low, grimy curtains pulled swiftly across the stage by unseen hands. Indeed, the 90-minute performance felt all of a piece, a single arc of music-drama in the best sense of Wagner’s ideal. Small wonder the audience reacted with a collective release of energy, indeed in collective catharsis. But the ultimate locus, the irreducible genesis, of that response was the musical direction of Davis.
What a gorgeous, discerning, and empathic concept of Berg’s music Davis led! The orchestra’s voice in Wozzeck bears Wagnerian weight and significance, and the Lyric Opera musicians delivered a splendorous accounting of it. The final interlude, a grand dramatic flourish that suggests Mahler filtered through the prism of Strauss’ Elektra, spirited Berg’s tragedy beyond the realm of words to a place of pure feeling. It was that compressed emotion that echoed back in a tumult of appreciation.
Performances of Wozzeck continue through Nov. 21. For details, click here.
Lawrence B. Johnson, former music critic for The Detroit News, is editor of the performing arts web magazine ChicagoOntheAisle.com.