at Lyric Opera, through February 19

“Die Welt ist schlecht.” The world is bad. So says the repulsive character of the Doctor in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. The observation of the Doctor is profound, not because it gives an insight about the world (it doesn’t), but because it gives us an insight about Wozzeck and Berg as well as this century’s arts and intellectual circles.

The nihilism that’s at the heart of this opera is the true leitmotiv of the artistic and intellectual movements of this century. To be sophisticated is to embrace it. To reject it is to mark oneself as philistine and bourgeois. One current tactic of Wozzeck fans is to point out (correctly) that the work is not of Schoenberg’s 12-tone style. Instrumentally and vocally Wozzeck used no idiom that hadn’t been heard before. Listen to Strauss, Wagner, and early Stravinsky and you’ll hear the techniques employed here by Berg.

The difference in Wozzeck is the relentless, grinding, downbeat subject. The opera is about evil–without a single redeeming strain of nobility. It’s the petty evil of Mime, without the grandeur of Alberich. None of the characters is tragic; they are only pathetic. I suppose one is meant to empathize with the suffering of the title character, but ignore the composer’s sympathetic dramatic picture of this downtrodden soldier and you have a commonplace tabloid story. “Jealous stalker kills girlfriend, slays self.” The opera does not make much in the way of political statements, but it’s undergirded by a banal socialism of the “virtue is for the middle class” variety. Wozzeck’s boosters are under the mistaken impression that it’s the musical idiom that leaves audiences cold. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is the second installment this season in the Lyric’s continuing “Toward the 21st Century” program (Susannah was the first). This program is billed as a platform for contemporary, unjustly neglected works, but it’s surprising how often the works included have been neither. Susannah is coming up on the big four-oh, while the Wozzeck score was complete and orchestrated by 1921. It’s hard to accept a work that’s older than Turandot and that’s been performed more often by Lyric than Die Meistersinger as either contemporary or neglected. But perhaps we’re dealing simply with perceptions.

The partisans of Wozzeck assert alternately and contradictorily that it isn’t performed often enough and that it’s firmly ensconced in the international repertory. Who are the partisans of “contemporary” and “neglected” operas? Generally speaking they’re the critics and academics who can’t forgive the operagoing public for its failure to rally to the “new music” banner, starting around World War I. For decades their view was that their favorites of the second Viennese school and other academically popular composers of the Henze-Berio stamp would eventually be generally accepted. For years a low-level guerrilla campaign was waged that labeled the works of these composers “intellectually complex” (implying that if you don’t care for them you must be shallow). With the centenary mark for some of these works now coming into view, it has gradually dawned on the musical nomenklatura that this long-hoped-for end may not be achieved. The reaction has been twofold: a continuing castigation of opera management for not programming “enough” of the “right” works for the public to see the light, and all too often an uncritical attitude when these works are performed. The “Toward the 21st Century” program is in part an effort to perform some of the works that are popular with the ivory-tower crowd but haven’t earned a corresponding place in the minds or hearts of regular opera patrons. One must admire the diplomatic skill of Ardis Krainik as she soothes the herd with a new Traviata while keeping the intellectual wolves at bay with Wozzeck.

The sets by Charles Edwards had an entirely appropriate nightmarish quality, though I could have done without the exit signs. And his costume choices seemed trite, particularly the military caricatures. The Captain was pure Hitlerite–except for the chain smoking (don’t designers ever realize that Onkel Wolf was a nonsmoking nature boy?); the Drum Major appeared to be some kind of half-baked, Vietnam-era airborne ranger. The direction by David Alden was only occasionally self-consciously artsy, and the decision to run the nominally three-act work as a one-acter was excellent, greatly intensifying the emotional impact.

The singing was outstanding. The brutish, brutalized Wozzeck was sympathetically sung by Franz Grundheber. The timbre of his baritone would be appropriate to the giant Fasolt in Rheingold, the same kind of character as Wozzeck–uncouth, but good in a weak sort of way. Graham Clark wallowed in the role of the Captain, whose music is much like Mime’s crazed monologues in Siegfried. Kathryn Harries sang the stalking-victim role of Marie; her performance was arresting without being overdone. Norman Bailey sang the grim role of the Doctor in an appropriately cadaverous manner. And Richard Buckley and the Lyric Opera Orchestra handled Berg’s nerve-racking score decisively.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.