Composer: Alban Berg
Director: Gregoy Keller
Producer: Mark Lamos
Conductor: James Levine
Wozzeck: Alan Held
Marie: Waltraud Meier
Captain: Gerhard Siegel
Doctor: Walter Fink
Drum Major: Stuart Skelton
After a quiet week on the musical front, today came with a particularly gloomy, unapologetically atonal and (Thankfully!) compact opera at the Met in the afternoon as well as a dazzling French masterpiece performed by a major American orchestra at Carnegie Hall in the evening. But first things first: Even if you did not know that Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is famous for not being of everybody’s taste, the fact that the Met scheduled only four performances of it instead of the typical eight speaks volumes. However, if you’re feeling daring, or even just curious, and decide to give it a try, chances are you will find yourself richly rewarded. Having Alan Held sing the title role and James Levine conduct the opera he has championed for so long promised a matinee to remember, so I got a ticket for the very last performance of the season and duly showed up in a surprisingly packed auditorium.
Still ground-breaking enough to disorient the more traditionally-minded audience but by now accessible enough to delight the open-minded opera aficionados, Wozzeck remains a matchless adventure. Bottom line is, no matter what mood you’re in when you enter the opera house, you will in all likelihood be depressed - albeit in an enlightened way - when you leave it. Deemed shocking and scandalous as soon as it came out, Wozzeck therefore made Alban Berg an overnight star and has since become an undisputed pillar of the standard répertoire.
When he attended the first production of Georg Büchner's unfinished expressionist play Woyzeck, Berg allegedly knew right away he had to make an opera out of it. And he did. Although the plot is downright sordid and occasionally fragmented, it is not the main thing. Wozzeck is first and foremost a psychological opera. Even today, after decades of countless directors all over the world busily tweaking tradition with various degrees of success in their outputs, the work's uniqueness is still obvious on many different levels with its constant use of a wide range of vocal, instrumental and structural styles of expression. And it is this bold festival of genres that still intensely emphasizes the relentless chaos and dire hopelessness in the poor soldier’s life, powerfully representing the oppression of the masses by the haute bourgeoisie.
When I saw Alan Held’s name on the program, I knew that I would be in good hands. After stunning me as Capitain Balstrode in Peter Grimes a couple of seasons ago, he just seemed the perfect baritone for the role of the miserable soldier driven to insanity by his mistress’ infidelity. And sure enough, his imposing frame, remarkable presence and robust, flexible voice gave his character a human quality that elevated him above being a mere symbolic figure for all the little people. Whether in his confrontations with the other protagonists or his own hallucinations, Held’s Wozzeck stubbornly kept on fighting an increasingly isolating and losing battle that could not possibly end well, and indeed did not.
The catalyst of the drama is a young, unassuming woman by the innocent name of Marie. German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier brought her bright, assured voice to the merciless role and made a vibrant case for her heroine. Marie has many faults, but thanks to the singer's vividly emotional portrait of her, you cannot help but root for the trouble-maker.
The Captain and the Doctor, the two bad guys who will turn out to also be instrumental in Wozzeck’s demise, were respectively impersonated by German Tenor Gerhard Siegel and Austrian Bass Walter Fink. Representing the established society at its worse, patronizing and ridiculing the masses, they ganged up with much force and callousness against the poor soldier, eventually contributing a good deal to his creeping insanity. In an impressive debut, Australian Tenor Stuart Skelton brought just the right combination of braggartism and carelessness to the Drum Major.
The set and costumes were predictably grim and understated, but I cannot imagine them any other way. The stage became bathed in a striking scarlet red light at the expected moments, which may not have been very subtle or original, but certainly carried the dramatic points straight home.
After being deliriously greeted by an ovation worthy of a rock-star, James Levine led the unfailingly fabulous Met orchestra into a tight, riveting musical account of the stark tragedy. Unmistakably relishing being involved in a project so close to his heart, not to mention being back where he clearly belongs after another health-related absence, maestro Levine put his momentously informed knowledge of the score and his boundless enthusiasm for the opera to terrific use. I cannot say that I am totally reconciled with atonal music, but I’ve certainly gained a new appreciation of it. And that is a major accomplishment in itself.