The Metropolitan Opera
13th April, 2011
Alienation is a familiar theme in opera – Romeo is exiled from Mantua, Violetta is forced to give up her lover because of her status, the Countess is ignored by her randy husband, der Komponist’s genius is unappreciated by high society, Don José is rejected by both the army and Carmen, the list goes on – and resolution of some sort (death, forgiveness, compromise… death) is always forthcoming. But Wozzeck centers on alienation as the norm, as unresolvable (even by death) as it is inconsequential in the grand scheme. Every gesture, musical and theatrical, illustrates Wozzeck’s tragic alienation and his gradual descent into madness. The murder of Marie only heightens his estrangement; his own drowning simply returns the world to its own disaffection. Nothing is resolved.
Adapted faithfully by Berg from George Büchner’s 19th century play Woyzeck (itself based upon an actual event in 1821), Wozzeck is the story of a soldier who is perpetually beaten down emotionally and financially by his ranking and social superiors, to the point that he is completely dehumanized. A simple and good man, Wozzeck loses himself so entirely that he goes mad and murders his unfaithful mistress Marie. Unable to discern reality from his own heightened perception of persecution, he drowns trying to wash himself clean of blood.
Mark Lamos’ haunting production combined an unparalleled ensemble of acting singers, some of the most expressive playing I have heard from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and eerily evocative lighting and sets. Actor, instrument and visuals ensnared the audience in Wozzeck’s wild imagination and desolation; we didn’t feel for Wozzeck, we felt with him. This is the key to expressionism as a movement. Berg evokes the inner experience of Wozzeck over the simple imitation of actual events. The characters that alienate Wozzeck are not ‘realistic’ in appearance or actions – they are the essence of oppression.
Berg chose fifteen of Büchner’s original 23 vignettes to set, in three acts of five scenes each, and organized them into specific musical forms undetectable to the ear amidst all the atonality, but giving a decided form all the same. The first act introduces each of five characters that participate in Wozzeck’s downfall: the Captain, Andres, Marie, the Doctor, and the Drum Major who seduces Marie. Each scene moves Wozzeck further down the path of dehumanization as he is ridiculed, depersonalized, cuckolded, and scorned.
The first oppressor we encounter, the Captain, immediately sets up the opposition to Wozzeck with his grating, badgering demeanour and insulting laughter. Gerhard Siegel’s every detailed movement choice and vocal color fascinated; his coughing and nervous hand flutters suggested manic cruelty and domination, his nail biting was sinister and sadistic. I have encountered few singing actors as compelling as Siegel, and hope to hear and see him much more often.
Moving through his life in a downward spiral, Alan Held’s earnest Wozzeck subtly and convincingly shifted from mere deference to utter subservience and complete delusion. His singing was clear and powerful, and Held seemed to use his imposing height and physique to emphasize the weakness of Wozzeck’s character – the way he withdrew his physicality in the presence of his (shorter) persecutors underscored the complete dissolution of his self.
Waltraud Meier’s Marie was both gritty and attractive. She presents a truly round character, a woman who longs for love and attention and freedom, but also cares for her child, and struggles with her integrity. Meier’s voice is warm and vibrant throughout the rangy role; only at the very top does it straighten out and strain a little, but even that contributed to the effect of Marie’s extreme emotionality and circumstances.
Russell Thomas as Wozzeck’s soldier colleague Andres had ringing high notes and a concrete presence, which contrasted well with Held’s paranoia and fear. Resonant bass Walter Fink’s Doctor had the most degrading effect on Wozzeck, his jabs about Wozzeck’s lack of self-control delivered in such a cheerful, robust manner so as to seem truly evil. As the Drum Major, Stuart Skelton was appropriately raw, his commanding tenor sneering at the weak Wozzeck in the final scene of Act Two. And mezzo Wendy White’s delicious and disturbing tavern girl Margret sang with luscious virility and gorgeous tone to the increasingly paranoid Wozzeck. This was an ensemble of singers with some of the most marvelous vocalism and acting that I have encountered in ages, while retaining the feeling of a true ensemble, dedicated to telling a story.
The lighting designed by James F. Ingalls is practically a character in itself in this production. Extreme shadows cast behind characters on the towering asymmetrical gray panels of Robert Israel’s unsettling sets lent power to individuals or subtracted it as need be. The stark contrast of darkness and light had palpable physical presence on the stage, communicating Wozzeck’s exclusion and unease. And the sparing use of red in the set and lighting during the death scenes was specific and disturbing in its contrast to the earlier colorlessness.
Splashes of red effectively punctuated the most graphic moments of the opera. Accompanying Margret’s accusing questions about the blood on his shirt, the bizarrely distorted tavern music of Act Three gathered us up in Wozzeck’s deepening insanity. Returning to Marie’s lifeless body to find and throw away the knife, Berg’s music doesn’t inspire pity or judging, only the panic and horror of Wozzeck himself. As he mused on Marie’s “red necklace” (her cut throat), shouting “Murder! Murder,” not even recognizing that he himself is shouting it, Held’s Wozzeck seemed at least completely disassociated from his earlier self. Attempting to find the knife in the water and throw it further, Wozzeck sees the red moon reflected in the water, crying that the moon is betraying him, and that the water is blood. As he drowned, vibrant red saturated the stage and the orchestra swirled the water over his head, the discarded body of Marie still in sight. The final scene of the callous children announcing Marie’s death to her son illuminated the continued alienation of the world; death has brought no resolution. Red has not saturated the world after all; grey rules.
James Levine at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra exuded his legendary passion and love for this score, which the players caught up and poured out in visceral, luxurious sound. The unison, crescendoing B in the orchestra after Wozzeck’s drowning was cathartic, an uncanny moment that summed up the unity of the entire evening: every part of the whole was equally contributing to this story and experience of theater. Good opera is the best theater, and this was good opera. It should always be this way.
Bottom line: It should always be this way.
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Conductor – James Levine
Production – Mark Lamos
Set & Costume Designer – Robert Israel
Lighting Designer – James F. Ingalls
Stage Director – Gregory Keller
(in order of appearance)
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Wozzeck – Alan Held
Andres – Russell Thomas
Marie – Waltraud Meier
Margret – Wendy White
Doctor – Walter Fink
Drum Major – Stuart Skelton
First Apprentice – Richard Bernstein
Second Apprentice – Mark Schowalter
Fool – Philippe Castagner
Soldier – Daniel Clark Smith
A Townsman – Raymond Aparentado
Marie’s Child – John Albert
Stage Piano solo – Jonathan Kelly