Berg’s masterpiece of atonality, written during World War 1, based on the Expressionist play by Georg Buchner, returned to the Met last week for the first time since 2006. James Levine, who first conducted the opera in 1974, chose to lead this opera as one of a select few during his celebratory 40th anniversary season at the Met, and it remains one of the crowning achievements of his musical stewardship. Levine clearly relishes the challenges presented by the enormous structural complexity of the work, which combines terse dramatic situations with musical diversity. He returned to the Met podium in glorious form, after a two month absence amid considerable fretting about his health. He received a thunderous ovation as the spotlight captured him on his podium chair before the opera and a tumultuous one when he swiveled to face the audience after the final notes. His gait hampered by chronic back problems, he skipped a stage bow, but basked from his seat in the appreciation of the Met audience for his work on this night and over the past forty years.
His conducting on this occasion was riveting, coaxing sounds from his mighty Met orchestra that made this complex, varied score alternately sing and stomp. Comfortably seated, he showed no sign of any diminution in his musical powers guiding Berg’s tightly integrated musical and dramatic opus.
The production, originally by Mark Lamos in 1997, with sets and costumes by Robert Israel, is now directed by Gregory Keller. It is a spare, fluid, moody staging that focuses attention, with the help of shadowy, atmospheric lighting by James F. Ingalls, on the fast-moving 15 scenes, presented here in three acts with no intermission. The tilted walls that glide easily into various positions suggest the locales of the story in vague, yet evocative, ways.
The ‘symphonic’ central act of Wozzeck is surrounded by an opening act to showcase the main characters and their relationships and a third act consisting of a series of musical inventions. Presented without intermission, the work moves inexorably from the introductory first act, to the dramatic second act, concluding with the tragic, pitiful destiny of Wozzeck and Marie, in the third act. The epilogue, when Marie’s child is taunted by playmates that his mother is dead, is haunting for its simplicity and its implications.
Alan Held, reprising his interpretation of the soldier as anti-hero , effectively suggested the bewildered, beaten-down Wozzeck with his medium-sized bass-baritone. Waltraud Meier, presented a thrilling, raw, dramatically intense Marie. Her mezzo-soprano soared over the orchestra at key moments and she acted the role emphatically, spitting out her challenge to Wozzeck to stab her rather than be touched by him. Her casual sex scene with the Drum Major was anything but casual.
Every role in Wozzeck is important and Gerhard Siegel was a sonorous, big-voiced Captain. Walter Fink’s substantial bass, offered a Doctor skilled at taunting Wozzeck while shortchanging some of his gravitas. Stuart Skelton debuted as the Drum Major. He gave us a mellifluous, somewhat internalized, version of the brash soldier who captures Marie’s eye.
The cast all worked with Levine and the orchestra to give the audience one of the finest revivals of recent seasons. The Met, by including it in the 2010-11 season, gave Maestro Levine and his legions of fans a marvelous 40th anniversary gift. Only one performance remains, the broadcast performance on Saturday afternoon.