Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wozzeck: Der Mensch ist ein Abgrund

Alan Held as Wozzeck; (c) Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
I'd been looking forward to the Met's Wozzeck for some time, but I didn't expect to love it.  It was, of course, abysmally bleak.  It was also brutally honest, surprisingly beautiful, and almost unbearably poignant: in short, one of the finest nights I've had at the opera this year, and perhaps ever.  For a synopsis, go here.  The tragedy was inevitable, and it had me on the edge of my seat.  The singing and acting of all the principals was of an exceptionally high level, and James Levine led the orchestra in a reading of the score which I found coherent, detail-rich, and gorgeous.  It was not aggressive; I overheard some muttering that it was, in fact, too beautiful a rendering.  Well, not for me; I thought the subtleties were eloquent of despair.

Mark Lamos' 1997 production was stark; blank backdrops reinforced Berg's vision of Wozzeck as mythical, and lighting and stage direction also contributed to the oppressively ominous mood.  The charcoal blues and grays are relieved only by the scarlet piping on the soldiers' uniforms... a color which is echoed by a strip on the horizon as Andres and Wozzeck cut reeds, and of course by the terrible Mondscheibe.  The thoughtful choreography resulted in some stunningly chilling moments: for instance, Wozzeck keeps getting sharp objects--the razor, the sickle--taken away from him.  The claustrophobia of the tavern scene, too, was intense.  The chorus was excellent, and terrifying.  Indeed, I didn't think there was a weak link in the cast.

Protean house stalwart Wendy White was a sharp, if not quite shrewish Margret; Russell Thomas was a finely-sung Andres more abgestumpft than dim, not unsympathetic.  The Drum Major, it seems to me, does not need gorgeous sound, but this Stuart Skelton certainly had, in addition to vocal power and plenty of swagger.  He was almost seductive with Marie, unequivocally brutal with Wozzeck.  Disappointingly, I had trouble hearing Gerhard Siegel's Hauptmann, but I know from hearing him in other things that it can't be the size of his voice that's the issue (obviously not his German diction, either.)  He was convincingly venomous and fussy.  Walter Fink's warm, full bass seemed luxurious for the Doctor; he was most sonorously complacent.

Meier and Held; (c) Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

Waltraud Meier gave me chills.  Praising--even marveling over--her portrayal seems almost redundant, because we are talking about Waltraud Meier.  But: her Marie is damaged and tender and cynical and sensual and brimming with a defiance that, in the face of so much hopelessness, looks almost like hope.  And how she captured the desire for desire in "Heiland! Ich möchte Dir die Füsse salben!" I have no idea, but I will argue that she did.  I thought she sang beautifully and incisively throughout, but I will admit to the weakness, if it be a weakness, of being simply, viscerally thrilled by her distinctive high notes.  This was my first time hearing Alan Held live, and I was deeply impressed.  His singing was plangent in both senses of the word, full and expressive and unflagging, and his Wozzeck--tormented and groping desperately for meaning in his world--was deeply moving.  The nuances of his anguish, and his anger, were remarkable.  The conclusion seemed inevitable, and yet it had me on the edge of my seat.  I may wait in vain for the day when the last chord of an opera dies into complete, reverent stillness at the Met, but every bit of the fervor with which the audience--and orchestra!--applauded the singers was more than deserved.  Maestro Levine took his bow from the pit, to the affectionate acclamation of all.  I know this post tends towards the incoherently rapturous, but even after having slept on it (with dreams of a blood-red moon,) I really do think the performance was extraordinarily good, implying the omitted line from Büchner's play: "Teufel! Meint ihr, ich hätt' jemand umgebracht? Bin ich ein Mörder? Was gafft ihr? Guckt euch selbst an!"                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        


  1. Delighted to hear about this wonderful performance. I have always been intensely proud that, quite by accident, the first opera I saw in the theatre was 'Wozzeck', and I still consider it the greatest twentieth-century opera, bar none. There will be a new 'Wozzeck' in Berlin later this month, with Daniel Barenboim conducting, so it is quite a month for the work. I'm much looking forward to seeing the Berlin production...

  2. If you haven't seen the movie, make a point of finding it.

  3. i think it will be possible to hear it live on bbc3 web on the 16th April.

  4. @Mark Berry Thanks for the comment! Seeing Wozzeck as a first is indeed an accident of which to be proud! May I ask where and with which singers? Although I tried to dutifully prepare by reading and listening, last night's performance was truly revelatory for me... now, of course, I want to listen and read more. I'll look forward to your review of the Berlin performance.

    @Dr. B. Do you mean the film of the play, with Klaus Kinski, or a film of the opera? I have seen the former (which I recall as being claustrophobic and brilliant) but have only seen excerpts from a 1972 Hamburg production of the opera; I know there are more out there.

    @asperias Truly you are tireless in the pursuit of streamed broadcasts.

  5. My high school choir teacher was in the chorus at the San Francisco Opera as a child, and played the little son at the end. He had nothing good to say about the opera, but given his egoism, I'm willing to bet that it's amazing.

  6. They finally released that long-shelved October 2001 Met performance on DVD as part of the James Levine 40th Box. Hope they'll break it out sometime.

  7. I've only seen W on DVD, and the last memorable production that I saw was this little known gem: Set and costumes were out of this world.

  8. @Christie Haha, oh dear! The poor child is malnourished and doesn't necessarily have much to do on stage, so maybe he was bitter. ;) Also, congrats on surviving an egoistic choir director!

    @stray Good thought! I'll have to do reconnaissance in the Met shop.

    @DTO Thanks for the recommendation! I'll see if the NYPL can help me with that one.

  9. I'm afraid I cannot even remember who the singers were, but it made a huge impression upon me: I have been besotted with Berg ever since. It was Opera North, in Sheffield. Paul Daniel conducted, and Deborah Warner was the director, I think.

  10. It's nice to see such a big House doing a whole run of this :-) It's a fascinating piece and the music is amazing. I saw a semi staged version a short while ago with Keenlyside and Dalayman, amazing. If i close my eyes i can still see the images and hear the music, Salonen was conducting. I think it is just one of those pieces that if you catch a very good performance it will stay with you forever. I love Alan Held, he was Pizzaro in the Fidelio i saw two years ago and he is my favourite in the role to date. And Meier is just special! I've seen and heard her many times on DVDs and Cds but i do hope to see her live one day... I could totally feel your review, thanks!

  11. @Mark Berry It can be counted a great success then! I'm afraid I'm similarly ignorant of who my first Tristan was (I saw the opera cold, in Oxford, with the WNO,) though I did manage to ferret out that the Isolde I loved was Annalena Persson. Thanks for sharing.

    @Hariclea: I'm certainly glad they are, though I don't have much of a sense of the (in)frequency with which the opera is given. Yours sounds like an amazing experience as well... impressive line-up, and Keenlyside is such an actor, as well. I'll have to hope for more Alan Held soon. Thanks for the nice comment. :)

  12. It was great last night but unfortunately the principals (WM, AH, SS) were in dreadful voice. Did not necessarily detract that much from the performance but in this respect it could have been better.

    Now although Waltraud Meier has never been known for her tonal refulgence and justly celebrated for her dramatic talent I would never call here a mere "singing actress". Indeed she has been an enormously gifted and skilled vocalist and her vocalism has been an integral part of her amazing performances. Even two years ago her Isolde and Sieglinde were amazing. Her performance was quite memorable last night and she probably had the best night of the principles but I don't she was at her current best. (Hopefully I'll get a chance to see her as Ortrud this summer).

    It was also as well conducted and played performance as I've heard at the Met this year. The playing did occasionally strike me as being inappropriately beautiful but I was disinclined to mutter or complain in any way.

  13. @marcillac I'm sorry to hear that! On the night I heard them AH was not blustery at all, I thought Meier sounded great, and I wished Skelton had more to do. I absolutely agree that trying to separate vocal and dramatic portrayal is impossible in Meier's case; her Sieglinde at the Met in '09 was brilliant, I thought. I didn't get to see her Isolde, so that's still high on my wish list. I do hope you get the chance to hear her Ortrud!


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