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Gerhard Siegel and Tomasz Konieczny [Photo by Cory Weaver]
30 Nov 2015

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In order to mount a successful production of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, first performed in 1925, the dramatic intensity and lyrical beauty of the score must become the focal point for participants.

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Gerhard Siegel and Tomasz Konieczny

Photos by Cory Weaver


Just such an effort is part of the current season at Lyric Opera of Chicago as led by its music director Sir Andrew Davis and in a production designed by Sir David McVicar. The roles of Wozzeck and Marie are performed by Tomasz Konieczny and Angela Denoke, both making significant debuts in this house. Gerhard Siegel and Brindley Sherratt sing the Captain and the Doctor, roles of authority in Wozzeck’s tormented life. Andres, friend of Wozzeck, and Margret, the neighbor of Marie, are portrayed by David Portillo and Jill Grove; Stefan Vinke is cast as the Drum Major. The roles of the apprentices are taken by Bradley Smoak and Anthony Clark Evans, a Soldier by Alec Carlson, and the Fool by Brenton Ryan. Messrs. Siegel, Vinke, Carlson, and Ryan are singing in their house debuts. Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable are the Set and Costume as well as the Lighting Designers in this new production. Michael Black has prepared the Chorus and Josephine Lee the Children’s Chorus.

Angela Denoke_Zachary Uzarraga_WOZZECK_B5A6744_c.Cory Weaver.pngAngela Denoke and Zachary Uzarraga

Before the start of the first scene a raised platform bearing the memorial likeness of a soldier is visible above the central back part of the stage. An outstretched arm protrudes here from a prostrate figure, just as a sword and helmet are perched atop. This image bears directly on Wozzeck’s lowly position within the military and also reflects McVicar’s dating of the action during a period showing the effects of the First World War. Scenic divisions within each of the three acts are ingeniously marked by a white half-curtain, manipulated to open or close rapidly from behind by stage hands. As the curtain is withdrawn to reveal the first scene with a focus on Wozzeck and his Captain, Siegel cries out with high pitches on the “Ewigkeit” [“eternity”] which he fears will intrude on his mundane existence. Konieczny’s Wozzeck proceeds to shave the Captain while responding in steady, deep tones of respect, “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann.” [“Yes indeed, Captain”]. Yet this acquiescence soon shifts to reveal an underlying resentful tension. When the Captain chides Wozzeck for acting immorally by fathering an illegitimate child, the responding vocal line and its delivery changes. Low pitches by Konieczny on “Lasset die Kleinen zu mir kommen” [“Suffer the little children to come unto Me”] have a more ominous ring; Wozzeck’s attempts to defend himself before the Captain, “Wir arme Leut’!” [“We poor folk!”] show still the controlled resentment of societal oppression. Konieczky’s remarkably attentive delivery highlights “Tugend/tugendsam” [“Virtue/virtuous”], aspects of moral behavior which his standing is not privileged to enjoy. The statement by this Wozzeck concludes with an extended and onomatopoetic emphasis on “donnern” in the phrase, “Wenn wir in den Himmel kämen, so müßten wir donnern helfen” [“If we arrived in heaven, we would have to help produce thunder”]. Once the half-curtain is pulled across this scene, as though affecting a shutter in an early film, the orchestral postlude, with its emphases here on brass and percussion, underlines the confrontational repression just related. A subsequent opening of the half-curtain reveals in the second scene Wozzeck and his friend/fellow-soldier Andres cutting and gathering sticks on a field at some distance from the village or barracks. It is in this scene that Wozzeck first appears as one possessed in contrast to the simplistic nature of Andres singing a folk-tune. Indeed the musical title given by Berg to this scene, “Rhapsodie,” emphasizes the growing, unavoidable gap between Wozzeck and his intimates. While Mr. Portillo’s Andres sings liltingly the traditional “Das ist die schöne Jägerei” [“A hunter bold I’d like to be”] and encourages Wozzeck “Sing lieber mit” [“Just sing along”] to forget his visions, the latter accelerate throughout the scene. Just as the mushrooms “nachwachsen” [“are growing”] with a pitch expressing horror before their spread, Konieczny stamps and sings “es wandert was mit uns da unten!” [“There’s something following us down there”] with deepened color. The “rhapsody” concludes with a simply delivered comment on nature’s sudden silence, “als wäre die Welt tot” [“as though the world were dead”].

The following scene introduces Marie and her child by Wozzeck, a segment again defined by Berg with musical types, “Militärmarsch” and “Wiegenlied” [“Lullaby”]. Ms. Denoke’s Marie defines the character as both protective mother and sensual woman in a convincing summation. Her fascination with the passing military band led by the Drum Major prompts her to sing unabashedly, “Soldaten sind schöne Burschen!” [“Soldiers are handsome fellows!”] with a melting tone of expectation. After her verbal confrontation with the neighbor Margret, replete with mutual accusations, Marie adapts her voice to the lullaby. Here Denoke produces one of the most striking images of this production. The lyrical transformation of her character, with soft, high pitches on “Sing ich die ganze Nacht” [“Though I sing the night through”] is accompanied by her tender gesture of a cradling embrace as she lies down with the child. Her sense of temporary peace is interrupted by Wozzeck, who comes to tell her that he is on the track of his visions, yet they are still “finster” [“dark”]. When he refuses to stay and spend time with the child, Marie concludes resignedly “Er schnappt noch über mit den Gedanken!” [“He’s going crazy with his ideas!”]. In an echo of Konieczny’s earlier soliloquy, Denoke declares “Wir arme Leut’” [“We poor folk”] while she releases a chilling, low pitch on “Es schauert mich …” [“It makes me shiver in fear …”].

In the following scene with the Doctor the medical assistants place Wozzeck in a chair behind a giant magnifying glass, so that his enlarged image is displayed for the audience’s speculation. Mr. Sherratt expresses the Doctor’s irritation and self-important pronouncements on Wozzeck as a test-case with emphases on high pitches and sibilants in “ärgern” and “ungesund.” When Wozzeck asks about the formations of mushrooms he has observed, the Doctor identifies triumphantly “eine köstliche aberratio mentalis partialis” [“a splendid aberratio mentalis partialis”] in his patient’s psyche. Wozzeck is assured now of an additional “Groschen” in pay because of his cooperation; as a consequence, his attention migrates to Marie whom he hopes to support and whose name Konieczny repeats in hushed introspection. In the final brief scene of the act, marked “Andante affettuoso,” Marie’s liaison with the Drum Major begins the ultimate challenge in Wozzeck’s humiliation. Despite the lyrical emphases in Denoke’s protest, “Rühr’ mich nicht an!” [“Don’t touch me!”], Marie leads the Drum Major behind the half-curtain into her dwelling. With true resignation Denoke declares, “Meinetwegen, es ist alles eins!” [“Oh, what difference does it make to me!”]; their physical union is seen as two shadow-figures behind the curtain.

The five scenes of Act Two, described by Berg as a “Symphony in Five Movements,” intensify Wozzeck’s interaction with the characters introduced in Act One. As though a continuation of the preceding act, Marie sits here in the first scene with the child at her feet. As she admires the gift of earrings from the Drum Major, Marie encourages he boy to sleep and leave her to her reveries as one of the beautiful “Madamen.” Denoke’s frustrated demeanor with her child indicates her character’s slide into self-interest, indeed magnified by a defensive pose at Wozzeck’s reappearance. Now it is Wozzeck who shows concern for the boy as he watches the child sweat in his sleep. After surrendering his meager pay, Wozzeck departs. Denoke’s heartfelt lament, “Ich bin doch ein schlecht’ Mensch! Ich könnt mich erstechen!” [“I’m a horrible person! I could stab myself to death!”], replete with self-recrimination, is a soul-wrenching premonition of the dramatic progression to the end. As the Doctor and Captain dispute in a subsequent scene, Wozzeck appears and is led by their insinuations to the full realization of Marie’s actions. His confrontation with Marie illustrates now the violence to which personal and societal pressure have driven him. In response to Marie’s “Was hast, Franz?” [“What’s the matter, Franz?”], delivered by Denoke with a full reserve of mock innocence, Konieczny’s surly accusations nearly lead him to strike her. Marie’s declaration, that she should prefer to be stabbed, reveals both to Wozzeck and to the audience a possible end to the tension. The following scene at a public house merely strengthens Wozzeck’s resolve, when he sees Marie dancing with the Drum Major. Denoke’s cries of “Immer zu!” [“On and on!”] suggest complete abandon and the likely transfer of her emotions. The climax of this triangle occurs in the barracks at the return of the Drum Major and his challenge of Wozzeck. After their struggle and Wozzeck’s defeat, the other soldiers present watch, yet each returns to sleep. Konieczny’s intonation of “Einer nach dem Andern!” [“One after the other!”] indicates Wozzeck’s resignation at being left - simply - alone.

At the start of Act Three Marie reads the Biblical passage of the woman taken in adultery. Denoke’s clear, high pitches on “Herr Gott” are followed by corresponding low pitches of self-disgust. She clutches the child now, as in Act One, in her attempt to rebuild an emotional web which has become shattered. The interweaving of Biblical lines with a folk-song on an orphaned child are here especially touching in performance. Wozzeck comes to take Marie for a final walk. As the stage rear turns red, he stabs her. When Wozzeck returns to the public house to participate in a dance, Konieczny seems, for the moment, carefree. He drinks, carouses, and dances with gusto in his facial expressions. As soon as blood is noticed on his person, Wozzeck realizes he must return to the scene of Marie’s murder and hide the knife. The sense of guilt now washes over him, as the water into which he casts the knife seems to be blood; he wanders further and drowns. Marie’s earlier premonition of an orphaned child is realized in the final scene. Her son sings “Hopp hopp” while he rides his hobby-horse, at first in the company of other children, and then alone on the stage. The melodic line ends abruptly, just as life has ended for Marie and Wozzeck. Lyric Opera of Chicago has met the challenge of Berg’s score in a riveting production that will long be remembered.

Salvatore Calomino

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