Berg: Wozzeck

The Metropolitan Opera, New York

10 April 2011 5 stars

Wozzeck Met Greeted to the podium by a chorus of hoots and cheers, James Levine delivered a devastating performance of Berg's score last night. His Met Orchestra manages, as only the best orchestras do, to morph into a far greater sound-force than the sum of its parts. Hair aglow and fists tightened, Levine drew out of the pit a roaring brass section, a full Mahlerian halo from the strings and lifted a line of piercings solos from trumpet, to clarinet to viola.

Wozzeck's music, like Lulu's, whirls and contorts around a fundamental lack, a missing center-piece that acts as its unmoved mover: the subjectivity of its title role. And yet Wozzeck is far from a cold-blooded character. On the contrary, he is forever expressing something—fear of his own monstrous hallucinations, alienation, hopelessness, anger, longing. And yet none of this can be shared by anyone; not us, not his fellow stage-dwellers, not even the orchestra, who would rather bestow Mahlerian swoons on his adulterous companion, Marie, than buttress his voice.

Wozzeck's part, so mercilessly split between Sprechgesang and screamed vibratos, was graced by the performance of a suitably stiff-bodied, livid-faced Alan Held. Held showed no signs of exhaustion, an impossible feat for someone who, like Wozzeck, lives in the lyrical spotlight but never flourishes in it: no real denouement, no revelation lurks beyond the angular wails Berg scored for this role.
Wozzeck's only human relation, Marie, was played by a radiant Waltraud Meier, who rather than lending this character the standard expressionist grimness of body and voice, endowed her with a clean, piercing voice that matched her sky-blue cotton dress and tousled short hair. When, just before giving in to the Drum Major's advances, she admonishes him not to touch her ('Rühr mich nicht an!'), her cry is aglow with a sinister purity: hers is the innocence of those who have no conscience.

The production was animated by the cultivation of contrast to the nth degree. A simple idea with bewildering mileage, especially when the team in charge (set designer Robert Israel and lighting designer James F. Ingalls) thinks in symbiosis. Large, gray wooden blocks make up the bulk of the staging, narrow and sinister like Fritz Lang skyscrapers. The light was one with this staging: they had equal physical presence. The darkness that enfolds Marie's little room in Act I, scene 3, is utterly impenetrable, but two scenes later one has to squint through Marie and the Drum Major's 'love scene' against a light-slashed wall. Throughout Act I the light hits surfaces in such a way as to create the alarming illusion that shadows are unhinged from bodies, a gigantic, deformed inner life that escapes our grasp.

Wozzeck MetLevine's reading of the opera is at its most brilliant when he manages to make the hollowest of sonorities sound positively deafening:  the two brutal unison chords that follow Wozzeck's murder of Marie had the audience retreating into their seat.  And what of the deafening hum of the G chords that close the opera? They are the sonic equivalent of the golden light Ingalls releases on the children left playing on the stage.  As Wozzeck's child trots off-stage, seemingly unaware that he is on his way to beholding his mother's corpse, those chords and light speak in tandem to a particular brand of hope, the one that Kafka so famously encapsulated when he spoke of 'plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope…—but not for us'.

By Delia Casadei

Photos: Ap Photo/Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

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