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Lyric Opera of Chicago

IN REVIEW Chicago Wozzeck hdl 116
Uzarraga, Konieczny and Denoke in McVicar’s Wozzeck at Lyric Opera
© Cory Weaver

ALBAN BERG'S PIVOTAL masterpiece Wozzeck made a triumphant reentry into Lyric Opera’s repertory after an absence of twenty-two years, in a musically thrilling, theatrically searing new production staged by David McVicar and conducted by Andrew Davis (seen Nov. 1).

Lyric fielded a superb cast of singing actors. Tomasz Konieczny was shattering in the title role. The Polish bass-baritone’s background in the legitimate theater was apparent everywhere in his intelligently nuanced performance, and he sang the role with great musicality without resorting to bluster in the Sprechgesang. Konieczny’s voice boasts a masculine, somewhat grainy timbre in its lower register that easily flipped up into a floated head-resonance—a device he used to poignant effect, particularly in Wozzeck’s disquieting, sleepless cries in the wordless chorus of snoring soldiers. Angela Denoke’s characterization of Marie was a startlingly realistic amalgam of sexual impulsivity and aching vulnerability; could anyone really judge this woman for her actions? She sang a moving account of the Wiegenlied in Act II.

Gerhard Siegel perfectly captured the Captain’s casual cruelty and hypochondriac hysteria. Stefan Vinke presented a vainglorious, macho Drum Major both physically and vocally. Bass Brindley Sherratt was an unusually creepy Doctor; he also handled the tricky writing of the extended passacaglia with Wozzeck most effectively. David Portillo contributed welcome lyricism with his honey-toned Andres. Jill Grove was the caustic Margret. There was excellent work from Bradley Smoak as the inebriated First Apprentice. The cast was rounded out by Anthony Clark Evans’s booming Second Apprentice, Brenton Ryan’s insinuating Fool and Alec Carlson’s Soldier. Young Zachary Uzarraga was a gently affecting and sweetly piping child.

McVicar set the action during the Weimar Republic, about the time of the opera’s 1925 premiere. Set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer’s drab, unsettling visuals revealed a playing area stripped to the bare back wall of the theater, with lighting grids starkly exposed. The omnipresent military machine was represented by a mammoth monument bearing a draped figure of an unknown soldier with clenched fist, hovering over innumerable names of those killed in World War I. Crumbling concrete walls and a mass of rubble downstage suggested an apocalyptic atmosphere. This bleak environment was horizontally bisected by two rows of filthy, bloodstained institutional curtains that swept aside and back again to reveal assorted locations, providing a pointed visual mirroring of Berg’s fluidly propulsive scene structure. Allusions to the impending Holocaust were palpable, if unspoken, in the seamy, claustrophobic soldiers’ barracks and in the Doctor’s horrific torture chamber of a medical lab, complete with oversized syringes and a huge optical lens. Paule Constable’s lighting engulfed the murder in an eerie wash of red. 

McVicar’s direction was naturalistic and uncompromising, heartbreakingly rendering Wozzeck’s pitiful desperation for money at whatever dehumanizing cost. The final tableaux was chilling, as the orphaned child made his exit laboriously pulling the cart formerly manned by his father—a suggestion that the cycle of poverty and societal exploitation will inevitably continue.

Conductor Andrew Davis, long associated with Berg’s Lulu, turned in an exceptional performance in his first Wozzeck. The balance initially threatened to favor the orchestra too much, but Davis quickly settled in for a splendid reading of the score. The orchestra outdid itself, beautifully executing the instrumental textures, from the minimally scored chamber-like moments to the lush, Mahlerian sweep of the final orchestral interlude that so deftly consolidates Berg’s musical conception. Michael Black’s chorus rendered its passages expertly, as did the Chicago Children’s Choir under Josephine Lee. This Wozzeck was a remarkable evening of music drama and by some distance the strongest entry in Lyric’s 2015–16 season thus far.  —Mark Thomas Ketterson 

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