Wozzeck at the Met
April 22, 2011
The Unbiased Opinionator's account of the last performance of Wozzeck this season at the Metropolitan Opera.
* Notes *
The musical and emotional journey that is Wozzeck is not an easy one. The score bears much study before an uninitiated listener can appreciate the dramatic richness and supreme formal architecture of Berg's creation. Nonetheless, James Levine's organic mastery of the score, combined with a very strong cast, resulted in a memorable afternoon.
The opera, written in three acts, was presented without intermission. Brief pauses were built in for audiences members to stretch, chat, or check their e-mail. The decision to present the work without intermission was a wise one. To allow the audience to trickle out, have a glass of champagne or cup of coffee, and then attempt to refocus after an ordinary intermission would have dispersed the dramatic energy of the performance.
The epicenter of this performance was James Levine, who was greeted with a storm of applause as he slowly made his way to the podium. One never had the sense of a conductor being a mere rhythmic traffic cop. Levine presented the work as one uninterrupted field of energy. His body language alone seemed to inspire the orchestra and cast with its great economy of movement.
This unrelentingly dark tale, rendered into play by Georg Buechner, was derived from a true story. Woyzeck, a proletarian ex-soldier, is helplessly caught, along with his mistress Marie and their son, in a spider's web of degradation, poverty, and subjugation to crushing forces beyond his control. The real-life Woyzeck was convicted and executed for the murder of his mistress in 1821.
Robert Israel's set was a claustrophobic, darkly-lit alien landscape of matte grey columns, trusses, and foreshortened geometric surfaces. This provided a framework for the characters, who were dressed in period clothing representative of some indeterminate, pre-World War I Central Europe. The dramatic figures were lit in such a way that their shadows were projected at surreal angles onto the set as they interacted.
Alan Held played Wozzeck, not as a beaten-down underling, but as a human being seething with anger and frustration. Even his initial monotonic "Ja Wohl, Herr Hauptmann" had a certain menace which foreshadowed his later descent into animal rage and homicide. Singing with great intensity and impressive vocal quality, he was not afraid to push his vocal delivery to the breaking point. The result, particularly during his panic-ridden hallucinations in Act I, was overwhelming in its impact.
Waltraud Meier had the dramatic capacity to present Marie in all her guises: the despairing mother; lustful, wanton sexual object of the Drum-Major (strongly sung by Stuart Skelton); and the caged creature who causes her own murder by rebuffing Wozzeck with the line "better a knife in the belly than your hands on me." Her dramatic portrayal was chillingly uncompromising.
The doctor (Walter Fink), and the Captain (Gerhard Siegel) played their roles with malignant, detached sadism. Both succeeded in projecting their wordy lines cleanly and clearly into the hall.
The backdrop to the murder of Marie by Wozzeck in the final Act was a huge, bloodshot moon, with pockmarked striations reminiscent of a human retina. The abstract pond in which Wozzeck drowns was a one-dimensional, rust colored band across the back of the stage. The resulting visual effect underlined the deep nihilism of the drama. After the thunderous ovation died down at the conclusion of the afternoon, one emerged into a the privileged, well-fed City, haunted with the knowledge that there are still Wozzecks everywhere in this world.
* Tattling *
UO had the great pleasure of greeting Marilyn Horne backstage after the performance. Horne was acclaimed for her performances of Marie in 1960, for the dedication of the new opera house in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and in her US Debut in San Francisco in 1964.