Saturday, November 07, 2015

Gritty 'Wozzeck' a Fine Opera for Those Who Don't Go For Baroque -- Chicago Opera Review

Opera / Theater Review

by Alban Berg
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru November 21

When the Lyric Opera offered the compelling opportunity to see 3 operas for $99, several titles on its 2015-16 slate held appeal.

The Marriage of Figaro and The Merry Widow were automatic picks for me, but Cinderella, Bel Canto, Der Rosencavalier and Romeo & Juliet all intrigued before I opted for a Verdi opera I haven't seen called Nabucco.

But when perusing while on the call about purchasing this trio--although subscribing for the full-season subscription might sound logical, I had done that for several years and found it too burdensome in ratio to my enjoyment of opera--a German opera called Wozzeck also piqued my interest.

The Lyric's marketing text describing it as "Raw, powerful, and transformational in its emotional punch and musical form," and a "20th-century masterpiece," while noting the title character as a poverty-stricken soldier made me perceive Wozzeck--which I added as a 4th opera for another $33--as possibly analogous to The Passenger, which I highly enjoyed early this year.

The Passenger is a grim but riveting opera revolving around the Holocaust, written by Mieczyslaw Weinberg but not staged anywhere until 2010.

The Lyric's terrific production abetted my sense of affinity for atypcial operas, perhaps more dramatic and realistic than the more common Baroque offerings with grand costumes and farcical plots.

As I've written ad nauseum--see my recent review of The Marriage of Figaro--despite great appreciation for the art form and the Lyric's exquisite productions, I admire opera more than I feel it, like it more than I love it.

Despite a glowing 4-star (out of 4) review by the Chicago Tribune's esteemed classical music critic John von Rhein--which you should put far more stock in than my gut reaction--and despite noting much obvious quality and no discernible deficiencies, Wozzeck was not an opera that altered or enhanced my abiding view of opera.

It was excellent but not life-changing, and though some vague similarities to The Passenger seem apt, I didn't find Wozzeck nearly as riveting, daring and enriching.

And while The Passenger wasn't exactly a new opera when I saw Lyric's first production of it in March, Wozzeck was actually written by Alban Berg between 1914-22 and originally done at the Lyric seemingly in 1965.

This production is directed by the rightfully acclaimed Sir David McVicar, and even without a point of reference, it's clear he's done a wonderful job with it.

There was nothing I found "wrong" and much I admired, even if I wasn't as mesmerized as I had hoped. And while I lack the ability to astutely judge, all the performers sounded great vocally, as did the orchestra (under the direction of Andrew Davis) in playing Berg's atonal score.

Although time and place are never specified in the opera, the Austrian composer Alban Berg--who also wrote the libretto based on a 1825 play by dafd Buchner--fought in World War I.

The title character, Wozzeck (Tomasz Konieczny) is a dim and/or otherwise addled soldier who has a bastard child with a woman named Marie (Angela Denoke), who if not actually a prostitute is what was once known as a "loose woman." 

After Marie has a dalliance with a drum major (Stefan Vinke), Wozzeck gets angry, even more so after the other soldier beats the crap out of him. He subsequently stabs Marie to death, and in trying to retrieve the knife he used, drowns himself.

If you're familiar with some operas and are thinking that this basic plot summary sounds somewhat akin to the often ludicrous, melodramatic narratives that make up most Baroque operas, well, that's kind of what I was thinking.

Yes, the costumes and setting of Wozzeck are far grittier than is the operatic norm, and themes of war's inhumanity are amplified by Wozzeck's belittling Captain (Gerhard Siegel) and a doctor (Brindley Sherratt) who conducts experiments on the soldier.

But whereas promotional materials suggested I would be riveted from beginning to end--of a quite short 98-minute opera divided into 3 acts with 5 scenes each--I can't really say that I was.

To be clear, again, I am not critiquing the technical merits of this production, any of the performances or even the opera itself. All appeared to be first-rate and anyone inclined to attend--perhaps motivated by John von Rhein's more stellar and expert assessment--shouldn't be dissuaded by me.

But as best I've been able to delineate, a @@@@ rating on SethSaith's @@@@@ scale connotes a performance I enjoyed and was glad to have seen.

And that's how I feel about Wozzeck.

Yet I can't say--as a higher rating would convey--that it was something I'm especially glad not to have missed, that I expect to really stick with me or that I would effusively suggest others see.

This doesn't mean I've soured on opera; The Merry Widow is on tap for me in a few weeks and I'm still merrily looking forward to it. But I guess the 3-for-$99 deal would have been sufficient.

Though Bel Canto also intriques.

No comments: