Konieczny, Denoke make powerful Lyric debuts in Berg’s harrowing “Wozzeck”
“It’s a bad world,” observes one character in Wozzeck, and it’s hard to disagree. The bleak landscape of Alban Berg’s 1925 opera is an absurd and godless, meaningless universe populated by obsessive neurotics, in which good people can only go insane or become victims. In such an environment, the only possible fate for the disturbed ex-soldier Wozzeck and his fragile prostitute girlfriend Marie, is madness and death.
Wozzeck opened at Lyric Opera in a Sunday matinee, the company’s first production of Alben Berg’s groundbreaking opera in 22 years. With a powerful double company debut by Tomasz Konieczny and Angela Denoke and an intelligent, effective new production by David McVicar, Lyric’s Wozzeck presents a harrowing performance of Berg’s brilliant tragedy.
Despite the composer’s denials, it’s difficult not to feel that the blood and devastation of World War I found their way into Berg’s adaptation of Georg Büchner’s unfinished 19th-century play about the ex-soldier-barber who is driven to homicide. That sense of the center not holding–socially and psychologically–is constant in Berg’s restless, remarkable score. Even with the mathematical inspiration of Berg’s modified serialism, there is nothing dry or studied and the music sounds utterly spontaneous and wholly compelling, the notes leaping from instrument to instrument like the fevered thoughts in Wozzeck’s disordered mind.
McVicar’s stark new production is distinctive and visually striking, setting the action in Weimar Germany at the time of the opera’s premiere. The short interior scenes are presented at the front of the stage with Vicki Mortimer’s appropriately dingy sets changed behind a long, grimy hospital curtain, which is whisked quickly open or closed by (mostly) unseen stagehands.
That the “Great War” was the source of Wozzeck’s emotional damage and eventual violence is made manifest. A towering German war memorial inscribed with the names of the dead looms over the public scenes, with graffiti-scarred walls on the sides. Soldiers hover in the background doing office work while Wozzeck shaves the Captain in a tub. Weimar decadence is apparent in the dissolute, tube-drinking ex-soldiers and transvestite cafe pianist. Wozzeck’s hopeless social fate is reflected in the harness-like cart in which he carries firewood, a barely human beast of burden discarded by the state after his war service.
There were a few small but significant lapses in McVicar’s otherwise smart and atmospheric production. In the scene of Marie’s murder, Paule Constable’s flickering lighting left Konieczny and Denoke in nearly invisible shadow for far too long during the crucial buildup to the opera’s climax. Also having Marie’s son take the harness of Wozzeck’s cart at the curtain was a bit of heavy-handed symbolism where Berg’s nonchalant throwaway coda is even more devastating.
Finally, in the first chaotic and overly busy dance hall scene, McVicar presents the character of the Fool (Brenton Ryan) as a cross-dressing mix of Charlie Chaplin and Joel Grey’s emcee from Cabaret. Even that would have been acceptable, but putting him stage front along with Wozzeck and having Ryan mug for an extended period of time was a jarring distraction from the narrative and gracelessly upstaged Konieczny at a key moment of Wozzeck’s downward spiral.
Making his Lyric Opera debut, Tomasz Konieczny delivered a compelling, richly layered performance as the haunted Wozzeck. The Polish bass-baritone has a warm, acutely focused instrument, and was able to sing softly yet project into the house at interior moments, as well as unleash daunting reserves of power at Wozzeck’s primal explosions.
Yet most impressive was the subtlety and humanity of Konieczny’s performance. His Wozzeck is natural and almost underplayed in the early scenes, putting up with the buffoonish Captain and whack-job Doctor with patient forbearance. As Marie’s infidelity and other humiliations pile up and begin to prey upon his psyche, Konieczny makes Wozzeck’s increasing illusions and hallucinations seem organic and inevitable in an almost clinical fashion. This was a sensational, devastating debut by a singer one hopes will return soon to Chicago.
As Wozzeck’s ill-fated lover Marie, Angela Denoke’s heart-breaking performance was on the same high level. Also making her house debut, the German soprano displayed an ample, flexible voice and was consistently assured throughout the score’s myriad challenges. Dramatically, Denoke affectingly conveyed the emotional and psychic desperation of Marie and her contradictory impulses of passion, guilt, penitence and apprehension.
Of the bizarro supporting characters who inhabit this dark world, Gerhard Siegel was simply terrific as the beefy yet fearful Captain. With his big, agile voice, the German tenor easily handled the vaulting challenges of Berg’s vocal lines and embodied the pompous cowardly character with his epigrammatic platitudes.
Brindley Sherratt was both amusing and unsettling in the role of the Doctor, the officious quack who uses Wozzeck as a subject for his experiments and obsessive elimination and diet remedies (“Eat your beans, Wozzeck!”). The British bass’s voice was sonorous and penetrating though Sherratt was unable to negotiate the role’s sudden weird leaps to the highest register.
As the Drum Major, Stefan Vinke was aptly odious as the strutting bully who seduces Marie and humiliates Wozzeck with a beating, leading to the final tragedy.
While not visually credible as the offspring of Konieczny and Denoke, young actor Zachary Uzarraga showed impressive confidence and poise as Marie’s son.
David Portillo provided a rare moment of stability as Wozzeck’s friend and fellow laborer Andres. It was luxury casting indeed to have the irrepressible Jill Grove in the small role of Marie’s neighbor, Margret.
Brenton Ryan was the overprominent Fool, with Bradley Smoak and Anthony Clark Evens as Two Apprentices and Alec Carlson as a Soldier lending fine support. As a group of townspeople and cafe habitues, the Lyric Opera Chorus sang with strength and polish in their brief moments under Michael Black.
Sir Andrew Davis’s mastery with Alban Berg was richly demonstrated seven years ago with the Lyric Opera’s memorable production of Lulu, which is overdue for revival. In the early going Sunday, it felt like the score had not quite fully settled with the musicians, with some lack of grip and focus. Soon, the performance found its footing and under Davis’s attentive direction, the Lyric Opera Orchestra gave luminous and committed advocacy to this extraordinary score, putting across its restless agitation, mercurial shifts and sudden moments of heart-stopping beauty.
Wozzeck runs through November 21. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.
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