We know that “War is Hell” but we don’t usually go to Lyric Opera to see it so vividly portrayed. As a production, “Wozzeck” is theatrically arresting, a tribute to Sir David McVicar, an opera director usually associated with Mozart, Verdi and Strauss than this atonal score by Alban Berg.
While I am an opera-goer who enjoys seeing dramatic and difficult works (Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Elektra, Jenufa and Satyagraha) over another performance of “Tosca” or “Marriage of Figaro”, I found Berg’s score a shade too challenging. The atonal sounds, harsh and sometimes blaring, kept me at a distance and made it hard to engage.
Following the performance, I shared my half-hearted reaction with a friend, a trained musician, who corrected my opinion, “No, that is great music.” Perhaps my ears need an atonal tune-up.
That may be so but I read that even Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of 12-tone music, thought that “a drama of such extraordinary tragedy seemed forbidding to music” given the public’s penchant for conventional characters and less naturalistic settings.
The wheels of taste possibly have turned. The front-rows audiences’ gave the performers at the second performance a rousing ovation. I ascribed that reaction to the committed vocal and dramatic performances not only of Tomasz Konieczny as the hapless and humiliated Wozzeck and for Angela Denoke as Marie but also Gerhard Siegel as the Captain and Stefan Vinke as the drum major. Lyric is fortunate to be hearing Denoke, a renowned soprano, performing this signature role.
Upon entering Lyric’s Auditorium, one sees a dark gray, hulking war memorial upstage on which rests a clenched fist. Before the downbeat, you encounter Berg and the opera’s stark question. Is war worth the lives of so many thousands of any nation’s young? That clenched fist reflects resistance and cold anger at such a horrible sacrifice.
Below the forbidding memorial, McVicar situates the action. He keeps the opera’s 15 dour scenes moving by means of sliding white curtains, hung from steel rods, that open and end each scene, akin to a slide projector.
Wozzeck relates a story of people caught in the iron grip of poverty, of pawns trapped on the low rungs of hierarchy and inequality. The opening scene features Wozzeck shaving his captain who accuses his lowly, silent underling of having no morals. Wozzeck counters that he is too poor to be virtuous.
Yet, he is a man with morals which revolve around his feelings for his mistress, Marie, and her child. He endures mockery to earn extra money for their support. Yet, after Wozzeck witnesses the unfaithful Marie dancing with the drum major and sustains a beating by him, he descends into insanity, kills Marie and takes his own life.
The haunting last scene shows a playground full of children, including Marie’s son. When another child rushes in and announces Marie’s death, they all scoot off, save for the son. The last image shows him pushing a huge cart’s wheels (the wheels of history?), suggesting that he, too, will follow in his father’s footsteps. Berg’s opera contains lessons about war and entrenched class outcomes that ring true nearly a century later.
While I have musical reservations with “Wozzeck”, if you want to see a production with strong stagecraft (credit set designer, Vicki Mortimer) and stirring dramatic singing, you should visit Lyric. You may find the music to your liking. Hurry, only three performances remain. The opera ends November 21. For tickets, visit Lyric Opera online at www.lyricopera.org.