Composer: Alban Berg
Librettist: Alban Berg
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Seguin
Producer/Director: William Kentridge/Luc de Wit
Wozzeck: Peter Mattei
Marie: Elza van den Heever
The Captain: Gerhard Siegel
The Doctor: Christian van Horn
The Drum-Major: Christopher Ventris
There’s nothing I like more than kicking off a new musical year with a challenging, but ultimately satisfying, and, if possible, uplifting too, work. So last year, when I saw that the Metropolitan Opera’s next season would feature Alban Berg’s short but relentlessly intense Wozzeck sung by Peter Mattei, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Seguin and directed by William Kentridge, I knew that the outcome would probably be challenging and satisfying, although probably not that uplifting, unless, of course, you take into account the irrepressible high that brilliant art never fails to offer, as you should.
Therefore, I figured that a depressing masterpiece was better than no masterpiece at all, and decided to get a rush ticket for last Sunday matinee since the powers-that-be at the Met have finally come to their senses, realized how popular those afternoon performances would be, and have gotten them going. And sure enough, after a nice walk down Broadway on a seasonably cold and sunny day, I stepped into an almost-full house (So there) to make it to my pretty fabulous orchestra seat.
Based on Karl Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, which was itself inspired by the real case of a soldier gone mad and was finished by various third parties after its author's untimely death, and driven by Berg’s difficult yet accessible and oh so exciting score, Wozzeck the opera is a grim story any way you look at it. That said, the fact that Berg had to put his work on hold to become a soldier during World War I, and therefore witness first-hand the horrors of the battlefield, had at least the merit of providing new material to it. And that’s how one of the most iconic opus of the 20th-century avant-garde movement was born.
A Met favorite for his effortlessly charismatic interpretations, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei was clearly not an obvious choice for the title role, but he just as clearly has enough talent, intelligence and ambition to heroically go against type and pull off one of the least heroic parts in the repertoire. A simple-minded man that slowly but surely loses his sanity all the way to murder, Wozzeck is no doubt a technically and emotionally challenging character. But Mattei fearlessly raised to the challenge with plenty of vocal power and physical momentum, and indisputably won.
In this daunting endeavor he was well-matched with South African soprano Elza van den Heever, a relative newcomer to the Met whose fierce singing and dedicated acting gave a powerful presence to the contradictory Marie, who was as naturally gentle with her son as sexually aggressive with the drum-major. Her prayer at the beginning of Act III was certainly one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire performance, and one of the most musically beautiful too.
And there was even more virtuosity to be enjoyed as the trio of secondary but significant characters that are the boisterous captain, the self-delusional doctor and the bon vivant drum-major was superbly brought to life by respectively German tenor Gerhard Siegel, American bass-baritone Christian van Horn and English tenor Christopher Ventris. There’s no doubt that the success of the performance would not have been so complete without them.
One of the main characteristics of Wozzeck is its unabashed embrace of Expressionism, and William Kentridge did not shy from it either on the Met’s immense stage that was as cluttered and chaotic as you can imagine an apocalyptic world to be, with, among many other things, numerous intersecting platforms and walkways. Add to those, background images and film projections showing devastated landscapes, bombed-out towns, military maps and animated stick-figures, and it was hard not to feel dizzy by just taking the visuals in. Some things worked remarkably well, such as the doctor’s cabinet in the cramped closet that unmistakably conveyed suffocating claustrophobia. Some others did not: Get rid of the puppet and its all-too visible handler already!
But then, no matter what, there is Berg’s prodigiously complex, rigorously structured score, which boldly blends old and new, gentle tonality for the few moments of peaceful harmony and harsh atonality for the overwhelming torrents of angst, madness and violence. The singers valiantly fulfilled their parts, and so did the terrific Met orchestra, which shone exceptionally bright, even in the opera’ darkest hour (Wasn’t that openly Mahlerian interlude following Wozzeck’s death just plain stunning?), under maestro Nézet-Séguin’s fully immersed baton. If the production ended up being a big hodge-podge in dire need of streamlining, the vocal and instrumental performances came out with thrilling clarity, expressiveness and attention to details.
As if the perspective of going to the opera on Sunday afternoon were not attractive enough, an additional perk had been thrown into last Sunday matinee’s bag in the form of a post-performance discussion hosted by Peter Gelb with the intrepid trio of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Peter Mattei and Elza van den Heever. Even if they barely had had a chance to catch their breath, the three pros graciously took the time to share some interesting insights in their processes as well as claim loud and clear that this had been the best performance of them all so far. No kidding.