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Opera Notes: the 'Wozzeck' variations

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David Alden wants to reinvent Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Since his impressive Met debut in 1979 with a revival of the opera, the New York-born director has staged this modernist classic six more times here and abroad. "It's packed full of possibilities," he says. "It's truly about perspective shifts. So my interpretation is influenced by the nationality of the audience, by the social climate of the moment. At the Met I did a more or less old-fashioned historical version. In Los Angeles a couple of seasons ago it came to be about the post-Vietnam military's hold on urban America. And in Israel the strange militaristic atmosphere there filtered through. I go which way the wind is blowing, who the cast is." This week well find out which way it's blowing at Lyric Opera, when Alden unveils the company's brand-new production of Wozzeck, its first in over two decades.

Alden and his designer partner Charles Edwards nabbed the assignment last winter shortly after the well-publicized split between the Lyric management and the team of Daniel Barenboim and Patrice Chereau. The Lyric had intended to bring over Chereau's Paris production for its first-ever collaborative effort with a Chicago Symphony Orchestra maestro, but the sets were too cumbersome for the Civic Opera House's stage. The stubborn French regisseur refused to modify the set design, and Lyric's manager, Ardis Krainik, backed out, calling the whole mess "the greatest disappointment of my administration." Barenboim chose to side with Chereau. Undaunted, Krainik quickly engaged the (less expensive) services of Alden and Edwards, and later gave Richard Buckley the conducting chores.

Alden, who has a knack for simplicity, is no stranger to the Lyric, where in the mid-80s he directed a fairly traditional Traviata. Two seasons ago he returned to Chicago with his twin brother, Christopher, and came up with elegantly stylized concert performances of the Mozart Da Ponte operas for the CSO, which were a critical, popular, though costly success. "It was a grueling experience, cramming three operas into a short span of time," Alden says. "Believe me, I needed my brother's help."

For Lyric's Wozzeck Alden has been in a tight-knit partnership with Edwards, a jack-of-all-trades Englishman still in his late 20s. "We've fused our thoughts about sets, lighting, costumes, and movement--ours is an integral vision," explains Edwards, who decided to pursue a career in opera 15 years ago after seeing Alden's Rigoletto produced by the Scottish Opera. He apprenticed with David Fielding on two of Alden's previous Wozzecks, and now he's about to make his major-opera-house debut as the director's equal.

Alden, son of a TV writer and a Broadway dancer, grew up in New York City as an opera fanatic. He majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania but theater and opera were his first loves. Soon after graduating in 1971, he staged The Barber of Seville in Florida. "It was my first," he recalls. "Then I went back to New York and did a lot of theater work, off-Broadway. I decided to stick with opera. I didnt go to a conservatory, but I was trained as a violinist and have a solid grounding as a musician. Of course my theatrical background has come in handy too."

European experimentalists, especially those in 1970s Germany, have served as creative beacons for Alden. "I feel I'm more attuned to the sensibilities of the European avant-garde. The approach to opera there is more daring and exciting, more serious. You're less concerned with having to please rich people." London has been his home base for a number of years, and he regularly directs for British opera companies. "My brother has North America and I have Europe," he says. True to the European mold, he's become an all-around director, moving easily from opera to TV (a documentary on Verdi's life for the BBC) to rock concerts (a 1991 Pet Shop Boys tour).

With Wozzeck, Berg's first opera, which had a controversial premiere in 1925, Alden and Edwards hope to fashion a theatrical experience that can be appreciated by audiences in the 90s. "Berg took 19th-century forms--drinking songs, lullabies, marches--and masterfully transmuted them into post-World War I settings," says Alden. "Yet the opera is in many ways timeless." Indeed, this milestone in 20th-century European culture is based on the fragmentary 1820s drama by the gifted playwright Georg Buchner, who had used a much-publicized murder case as an excuse for a powerful indictment of social hypocrisy. Wozzeck, a poor soldier turned barber, is enraged by his sweetheart Marie's infidelities with a drum major. His fury stoked by the taunts of the townspeople and his fellow soldiers, he kills her. Berg saw in Wozzeck an antihero, a modern everyman exploited and discarded by a cynical society, and he came up with a musical and dramatic scheme that heightens the overall anxiety, anger, and despair.

Wozzeck's three acts, each of which contains five scenes, are named after different music forms. But much of the music is atonal and filled with rhythmic vocal utterances appropriated from Schoenberg, creating a sense of distortion and dislocation, of impending madness and doom. "The action and the setting move in cross rhythm to the music," explains Alden, "so our abstract urban set is very fluid. It starts in one space, then shifts into another. The earth keeps moving under you. For us, the heart of this piece is really about an innerscape, an unsettling nightmare. Buchner wrote about real poor people and gave their actions dreamlike expressions. He reacted against the heroic dramas of Goethe and Schiller. He was truly the father of the theater of the absurd--he anticipated Beckett."

Alden and Edwards deliberately eschewed the assiduous realism of Lyric's first Wozzeck, staged in 1965 and 1971 (and sung in English). "That earthen-set period treatment is outdated," says Alden. "And we didn't want to be artsy and evasive either," adds Edwards, "We didn't want to impose an overview and put in a lot of stuff, like some directors we know. We chose to be direct." "I'm not much interested in the social problems," Alden continues. "Sure, there's social criticism about poverty and against the petty military. You have that in Mozart and Verdi too. But for me the opera is much more than that. There's a certain mystery. Who is Wozzeck? Is he an artist figure, a poet manque like Berg during the war? Or is he a sardonic socialist like another barber, Figaro? Is he crazy to begin with? Or is he forced off the deep end by psychological pressures? Is Marie a seductress who repents? Or is she innocent all along? And, for that matter, who are we? What kind of understanding do we gain? There's no easy answer. I suppose that's why I keep coming back to Wozzeck."

The curtain goes up on the Lyric's new Wozzeck Monday, January 24, at 7:30 PM, at 20 N. Wacker, with seven more performances through February 19. The cast, singing in German, includes bass-baritone Franz Grundheber, reputedly the Wozzeck of our time, soprano, Kathryn Harries (Marie), tenor Graham Clark (Captain), bass-baritone Norman Bailey (Doctor), and tenor Mark Baker (Drum Major). Tickets axe $19-$96. A symposium on the opera will be held Saturday, January 22, from 10 to 5 at FIrst Chicago Center, Dearborn at Madison; Alden and Edwards will participate in a 1:30 roundtable discussion moderated by Krainik; tickets are $29. For more info call 332-2244.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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