[Met Performance] CID:327350
New Production
Wozzeck {45} Metropolitan Opera House: 02/10/1997.

(Debuts: Falk Struckmann, James F. Ingalls
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
February 10, 1997
New Production


WOZZECK {45}
Berg-Berg

Wozzeck.................Falk Struckmann [Debut]
Marie...................Maria Ewing
Captain.................Graham Clark
Drum Major..............Mark (W.) Baker
Doctor..................Michael Devlin
Andres..................Donald Kaasch
Margret.................Wendy White
Apprentice..............James Courtney
Apprentice..............Ronald Naldi
Fool....................Anthony Laciura
Soldier.................Irwin Reese
Townsman................Meredith Derr
Child...................Jonathan Press

Conductor...............James Levine

Production..............Mark Lamos
Designer................Robert Israel
Lighting designer.......James F. Ingalls [Debut]

Performed without intermission.

Wozzeck received five performances this season.

Production gift of the Metropolitan Opera Club

Additional funding from The DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund

Review of Alex Ross in the New Yorker

BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE

After seventy years, Berg's "Wozzeck" is still a shocker.

In the first scene of Alban Berg's "Wozzeck," a soldier is shaving the face of his captain. The music, too, scrapes like a razor, deliberately abrasive to the ear: blunt, dissonant chords; prickly fragments of themes; edgy orchestration. Scattered groups of instruments quickly gather together to make a rude, murderous gesture, embodying the instincts at work within and around the degraded mind of the soldier Wozzeck. But the harsh tone does not last: other voices come to the fore. Early in this same scene, the horns are caught in dreaming, romantic chords; soon afterward, solo strings venture a few plaintive phrases. Sounds of beauty and terror skirmish throughout the opera, fighting over Wozzeck's blank soul. Terror triumphs, but not without a last, unforgettable protest from the other side - the music's spirit of sympathy and ardor.

The intermittent beauties in "Wozzeck" come from the heart. They reflect the peculiarly angelic personality of its composer. Raised amid the decadence of fin-de-siécle Vienna, Berg somehow emerged as a gentle, selfless man who often lost himself in adoration of others. He adored his teacher Schoenberg and wasted a great deal of time executing his martinetlike commands. He adored his wife, Helene - "my most glorious Symphony in D Minor." He adored other women: few could resist his Hugh Grant-on-the-Danube charm. It seems improbable that this graceful character could have created something as emotionally overpowering as "Wozzeck," which once again left audiences dumbstruck when it played at the Metropolitan Opera in February. But Berg's ardor extended to the audience: he knew how to conquer hearts.

Admittedly, the idea of beauty in "Wozzeck" will come as a surprise to some. I went to see two of the five Met performances; both times, patrons rose from their seats and unhappily groped their way out. (The production's sinister lighting made them a procession of Expressionist zombies.) Although Berg's opera has been around for more than seventy years and has become familiar through hundreds of productions, it can still deliver a shock. The score is an encyclopedia of devices of musical fright: for example, the accelerating two-note stomp, which John Williams made famous in his score for "Jaws," and the crescendo on a single tone, which showed up on Trent Reznor's soundtrack to "Natural Born Killers." In the quiet of his Vienna study, Berg plotted episodes of mayhem that contemporary guitar terrorists will not surpass.

The opera embraces chaos, but every detail is ruthlessly controlled. The fragmentary structure of Georg Büchner's 1837 play - in which the soldier Woyzeck is driven by callous superiors, an evil doctor, and systemic malignity to murder his lover, Marie - gave Berg the blueprint for an architecture of musical forms: the opera's fifteen scenes correspond to passacaglias, fugues, sonata forms, symphonic movements, Baroque suites, and so forth. The score is a labyrinth of quotations, parodies, and inside jokes; it contains symmetries of harmony and rhythm which musicologists are still laboring to unravel. At one point, the tendency toward cerebralism is itself mocked; the doctor serenades his demented theories over a twelve-note ground. As Joyce said of his "Ulysses" - another modernist masterwork that begins with a morning shave - "Wozzeck" will keep the professors busy for centuries.

All this complexity does not simply give intellectual pleasure; in a roundabout way, it makes possible the lyrical effusions that win over those with the patience to listen. Scholarly studies by George Perle and, more recently, by Dave Headlam have demonstrated how Berg's individual musical language - in particular, his use of "interval cycles" (whole tones, fourths, fifths, and so on) - allowed him to reconstruct older styles on a Schoenbergian grid. Headlam, in his new study, "The Music of Alban Berg," says the tonal passages are "largely illusions." If so, they are the most powerful kind of illusion: they serve as signposts in unfamiliar terrain and become gateways to a crowd of musical memories.

The sense of the difficulty of "Wozzeck" might finally dissipate if listeners recognized more of Berg's citations of past operatic repertory. For example, the first scene of Act III, in which Marie reads aloud from the Bible, is a haunting reminiscence of Desdemona's Ave Maria in Verdi's "Otello." Puccini, too, comes to mind on a few occasions: the loping melody that represents Wozzeck's anguish has a Puccini-like tread. We should also acknowledge - at the risk of a breach of modernist etiquette - the opera's enormous debt to the premodern sound of Richard Strauss. There are creative thefts from Strauss's "Salome" everywhere: staggered rhythms in the brass, high squeaks on the double bass, an eerie chord linking moonlight with death, explosive chromatic patterns on the timpani, the pervasive use of a modified whole-tone scale. "Salome" and "Wozzeck" speak much the same language; it seems perverse that some operagoers should like one and not the other.

Just before the ghastly final scene -in which children rush off to see the body of Marie - Berg has the orchestra deliver a eulogy that brings to the surface all the secret tonal longing of the score. The principal theme, a swooping string aria in pure Romantic D minor, originated in a piano piece that Berg wrote for his wife and included in the opera at her request. Berg called this passage "a confession of the author who now steps outside the dramatic action on the stage." What is confessed is the power of simplicity. Just as Joyce has the courage to write plain words at the end of Leopold Bloom's journey - "He rests. He has travelled" - Berg lays his protagonist to rest with music of shocking sweetness.

Last month's new "Wozzeck" was one of the more successful of the Met's recent attempts to investigate post-Puccini repertory. ("Building a bridge to the twentieth century" might be the house motto.) The team of the producer Mark Lamos, the set designer Robert Israel, and the lighting designer James Ingalls opted for a bleak East German look: huge gray walls with structural supports; minimal furnishing; deep swaths of blue and red. The most striking image was the red moon rising over Wozzeck's crime: its mottled surface had the look of a blown-up blood cell. The stage action around these images was sometimes stiff and unimaginative; many precise correspondences between Büchner's drama and Berg's music disappeared in the shadow of Lamos's obvious symbolism. But the production over all had the virtues of coherence and consistency.

The German baritone Falk Struckmann made a notable Met debut in the lead. His forceful, on-target, sensitively shaded voice was a good match for James Levine's hyperaccurate conducting. I was left wondering what drove this unusually human Wozzeck over the edge, but perhaps the music answers that question sufficiently. Michael Devlin and Graham Clark delivered vibrant portraits of the Doctor and the Captain, Wozzeck's chief tormentors: the one a tall, skeletonic sadist with a peculiarly brilliant, cutting bass voice; the other a short, stuffy bureaucrat who managed to sound a perfect note of bourgeois contentment when he surveyed the scene of Wozzeck's drowning and pronounced it "uncanny."

The one unfortunate casting was Maria Ewing as Marie. She is an accomplished actress who effectively conveyed Marie as an innocent, sensual woman caught in the headlights of Wozzeck's madness. But a lot of the music wasn't there: I followed the score at home during the radio broadcast, and found her singing several high notes quite at random. Moreover, her phrasing lacked rhythmic clarity and her enunciation was bizarre. It is a pity that the Met did not give the role to Waltraud Meier, who was widely lambasted for last fall's "Carmen," but who might have done much better as Marie. (She sings the role strongly on a new Teldec recording.)

The whole endeavor turned unambiguously splendid in the hands of James Levine. It must have been among the conductor's finest hours at the Met. Hard-core atonalists may complain that he cushioned Berg's shocks, seeking ultimate beauty of sound; I don't regret the trade-off, since ultimate beauty did arrive. The D-minor interlude was an endless Romantic surge; even more poignant were the solitary voices that floated out of the orchestra - violin, cello, trumpet, and horn, among others. The solo players offered consolation in a cruel orchestral world. Alban Berg was a modest man who composed like God: he gave and he took away, his cruelty making sympathy more precious.



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