| David Portillo as Andres,|
Photo courtesy of the Lyric Opera.
The Magic Flute is beautiful and happy. Madame Butterfly is beautiful but not happy. And Alban Berg's Wozzeck is neither beautiful nor happy, though others disagree, at least about the "beautiful" part. The critics at both Chicago papers raved about it.
What did they hear that I didn't?
I last experienced—I almost said "endured"—Wozzeck when the Lyric performed it 23 years ago and, not to mince words, hated it. It struck me as shrill and ugly, an ordeal imposed upon the audience for reasons mysterious.
It would be exaggerating to say I enjoyed it more on my second viewing, but I disliked it less, and found myself plunged into thought, even as it was unfolding, asking questions like, "Why are they doing this?" then "Why am I seeing it?" and "How can people like this?"
The plot, thin as it is, matters more than the plots of most operas. It is about a common soldier, Wozzeck, living a life of regimented brutality as the servant of the swinish Captain. His love, Marie, the mother of his child, is canoodling a vile Drum Major. A team of grim doctors gleefully anticipates the fame that will be theirs when Wozzeck's condition, whatever it is, is fully dissected. Spoiler alert: it does not end well.
The music is atonal, meaning that there are not lush harmonies that swell and follow rhythmic patters we associate with songs. There is nothing to hum. I could easily have shrugged it off as the kind of eat-you-peas homework plucked out of the long history of opera that the Lyric feels compelled to inflict upon its audience, out of a strange compulsion to shine its light into the darkest corner of the canon, the way art museums intersperse their Monet and Van Gogh and Renoir shows with the occasional rude black and white slashing shock of Franz Kline.
"Why are we doing it?" Freud mused. "I think it is, in common with all great art, about the human condition, about post-traumatic stress disorder, about poverty, about the relationship between an oppressive society and and oppressive system, and about people making moral judgements. In my mind, it's an incredibly topical story."
"So it's about modernity?" I blubbered. The romantic age could be expressed with murmuring Bach harmonies but once you started gassing people in trenches you required something that sounds as awful as the reality it represents?
"If you are talking about music, that's completely subjective," Freud replied. "You are entitled to find it ugly. I find it incredibly expressive, moment by moment, describing the characters' thoughts, feelings, relationships. I think there is a lot of really beautiful music."
Freud's reference to the characters' thoughts "moment by moment," made me think of James Joyce, and I received a whiff of the philistinism that might be underlying my complaint with Wozzeck. If somebody told me that, heck, why chew on Ulysses, where you have to consult Cliff's Notes just to realize somebody is taking a piss, when you can slurp down a dozen Agatha Christie mysteries, one after another, like milkshakes? And the answer is that Joyce is trying to replicate the sweat and funk of granular reality in words, which is not always pretty but ultimately worth the heavy lifting. Not everything in life is fun and beautiful. Why should art be?
But Freud said there is beauty aplenty in Wozzeck, if you know where to find it.
"All of Marie's music is really lyrical, " he said. "The third scene of Act 1, the opening of act 3, very beautiful; a kind of aria in the 3rd scene — the way Berg writes for Wozzeck is totally different, music capturing the jagged, angular moment."
That's it, isn't it? If reality were one long carnival, we could move happily from Puccini to Mozart and back. But the reality of war and death jars, and so does Wozzeck. My go-to-man on these issues, Henry W. Simon, says it quite well.
Berg and his operas Wozzeck and Lulu epitomizes one aspect of a certain time and place. Wozzeck was conceived during World War I; its composition was completed immediately after that war; and it received its first stage performance, in Berlin, in 1925. It deeply stirred all of Middle Europe of that period. And that period was the period of Dr. Sigmund Freud, the period of Franz Kafka, the period of the rise of National Socialism. In music it was the period that saw the most violent breakdown of old ideas of melody—and, even more, of harmony. It was revolutionary, it was intellectually curious, it was unstable, and it reflected the sickness of the German soul.But Freud—the director, not the doctor—would not yield the field on the loveliness of the piece.
"The orchestral interlude, the passacaglia between the penultimate scene and the final scene, Wozzeck has just been drowned and we're about to be confronted with the horror of the ending: all we can hope for in the future is more of the same," said Freud. "It is a catharsis, in an orchestral interlude, up to that point are incredibly short, 20 and 30 seconds, here we have an emotional climax of the piece that is extraordinarily expressive, to my ears, an intensely emotional passage, lasting three or four minutes, an eternity in the context of Wozzeck. In it, I hear Puccini, I hear Mahler, I hear a music founded in Romanticism. I think Berg constantly shifts, the whole idea of atonality means no more music anchored in predictable keys or series of patterns. It's completely free to respond moment by moment to characters ' thoughts, actions, it's full of tune but the tunes last three seconds rather than 30 seconds.
If you consider it was created in 1925, it was a time of shock in art, and Wozzeck stands out because, while we came to embrace certain radical works, lessening their impact, it still has a sting.
"Picasso's portraits, when they were created regarded as utterly radical and offensive," said Freud. "Now they possess a classicism of their own ,compared to what has happened to visual arts since. One of extraordinary things about Wozzeck, a piece 90 years old next month,, is this: in which other art form would a 90 year piece be regarded as modern? Yet it is radical. It is revolutionary. Berg forged ahead in way he composed, in way he structured , but it is anchored in tradition. He is not rejecting tradition. He values his inheritance, but sees himself as a champion of moving that inheritance in new directions....It is now nearly 100 years old, yet it speaks to us as if it were written today. Our our ears are more accustomed to more comfortable sounds, but actually I think Beethoven, in his day, was as radical as Berg."
Beethoven died nearly a century before the premiere of Wozzeck. Maybe that's the problem. At 90 years old, Wozzeck is too new to be comfortable, not yet. But that's coming. Maybe in 2115, a dilettante-yet-unborn will emerge from the Civic Opera House, blinking into the day after seeing Pffft! an opera composed in 2020 using chainsaws and chickens in vises, and think. "Heck, what was that? Why can't they put on something fun, a good old classic opera, like Wozzeck?" Something to look forward to.
To be honest, after talking to Anthony Freud, I'm tempted to see it again, just to see if I can draw more out of it. Third time's the charm. For those similarly inclined, "Wozzeck," three shows remain: Nov. 12, 16 and 21.