Wozzeck Returns to Chicago’s Lyric Opera in a Memorable New Production

United StatesUnited States Berg, Wozzeck: Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra & Chorus, Chicago Children’s Choir. Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Michael Black (chorus master), Josephine Lee (children’s chorus master). Civic Opera House,  Chicago,  Illinois, 4.11.2015. (DP)

Zachary Uzarraga, Tomasz Konieczny and Angela Denoke in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Wozzeck
Photo: Cory Weaver

Berg: Wozzeck


Captain: Gerhard Siegel
Wozzeck: Tomasz Konieczny
Andres: David Portillo
Marie: Angela Denoke
Marget: Jill Grove
Doctor: Brindley Sherratt
Drum Major: Stefan Vinke
First Apprentice: Bradley Smoak
Second Apprentice: Anthony Clark Evans
Soldier: Alec Carlson
Fool: Brenton Ryan
Marie’s Son: Zachary Uzarraga


Director: Sir David McVicar
Sets and Costumes: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Paule Constable
Choreographer: Andrew George

One of the most forward-looking works of the 19th century, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck was based on a real-life incident of a poor soldier who was publicly executed for the murder of his mistress. Left unfinished at Büchner’s death, this torso of a play raised questions about the motivation behind the crime and painted existential ambiguity about who the real victim of the action actually was. This was long before movements such as Existentialism, Expressionism and Theatre of the Absurd took root, and decades before Brecht, Freud, et al.

Composer Alban Berg was so moved by a performance of the play that he made immediate plans to adapt it as an opera, creating the libretto himself in the Wagner tradition. Büchner had replaced the soldier’s execution with an ambiguous drowning (accident or suicide?), but the play’s major point retained the fundamental intrigue for Berg: how poverty and being a member of a lower social class can drive even the most intelligent and well-intentioned individuals to do things that the rest of society would consider “crimes.”

Nearly a century later, that message remains so shocking that—taken with Berg’s use of atonality— Wozzeck is an anxiety-producing commodity among operatic presenters and audiences alike.

In the 61-year history of Lyric Opera of Chicago, this is only the third Wozzeck production. Longtime Lyric artistic director Bruno Bartoletti was an early champion of the piece and managed to have it presented in English (to emphasize its drama in a pre-supertitle era) fifty years ago, repeating it in 1972.

Back then, myriad audience members leaving after every act ensured that Wozzeck would not be presented again for over twenty years. But in 1994, a much-anticipated new production lured then-new Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim and French director Patrice Chéreau to Lyric Opera. (Claudio Abbado had presented a semi-staged version at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra some years earlier.) Ultimately too costly for the company, Lyric pulled the plug, but is still listed as a co-creator of the Chéreau production even though it was seen elsewhere, but never at Lyric. Instead, to save face, the company went ahead with a less expensive and artistically inferior version of its own that only served to reinforce negative stereotypes about the work itself.

Sir Andrew Davis has made no secret of the fact that Wozzeck was near the top of his “wish list” to do at Lyric since first arriving as music director a decade-and-a-half ago, but it wasn’t until new management took over with Anthony Freud that these wishes were accommodated and happily, with great gusto.

Scottish director Sir David McVicar was asked to do this production, even though he admits in program notes that he has always been moved by Wozzeck, but never saw himself directing it due to its many challenges. McVicar has updated to action to the World War I era, long after the historical incident and decades after the play was written, but contemporary with the time when Berg served as a soldier. Berg wrote the opera in the early 1920s and had always said that it was not intended to be autobiographical nor reflect that time, yet roughly a century after the fact, McVicar’s vision seems a good fit.

Much of the cavernous Civic Opera House has been left unadorned. Its back walls, lights, racks and stage paraphernalia make up the top half, and the action takes place within the bottom half, a space that shifts with hospital curtains being pulled back and forth—sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, always loudly. This manages to solve the interesting problem of how to make Wozzeck’s rapidly shrinking world feel claustrophobic in such a large space.

Within the curtain area, things have a blunt realism, whether it’s a barber shop, Marie’s home, the medical laboratory where Wozzeck is undergoing experiments, the tavern, the army barracks or the reflective water so important to the climax. The realism is enhanced by additional props and accessories that are lowered down between scenes, accompanied by thickly textured musical interludes that are as important to the work’s overall impact as anything sung.

It would be hard to imagine a more ideal cast. Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny plays Wozzeck as the ambiguous anti-hero that he is—an everyman caught up in the webs of those with greater power, manipulation skills, wealth and coping abilities. Even Marie, sung tenderly by German soprano Angela Denoke, has their son to love, as well as some passion and practicality left in her, whereas in this staging, Wozzeck is merely going through the motions from the opening curtain. Those looking for Wozzeck to make a journey will be disappointed; McVicar sees the character as a walking shell ready to implode.

By contrast, the confident worlds that the Captain and the Doctor represent—magnificently rendered by German tenor Gerhard Siegel and British bass Brindley Sherratt, respectively—are reflected by their striking singing to great effect. So, too, with German tenor Stefan Vinke’s Drum Major.

The inevitable tragedy that ensues has to seem organic, and thanks not only to McVicar’s masterful direction, but to Sir Andrew’s nuanced traversal of this very complex score, it comes off with aplomb. The decision to present the three acts without an intermission (100 minutes total) adds to this sensation. Tension is allowed to build and when it finally spills over, it’s initially as much a release for the audience as it is for Wozzeck.

Dennis Polkow 

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