Alban Berg’s only finished opera (Lulu was left incomplete at his death in 1935) has returned to the Met for a short run of four performances. Despite this discreet revival, the reappearance of the one hour and forty minute work has already created a stunning buzz. Met music director James Levine has long championed Berg’s oeuvre and has now presided over nearly forty performances at the house, about two-thirds of the total since the opera entered the Met’s repertoire in 1959. His enthusiasm was very much in evidence last night, although concerns about his troubled health have continued to make news, cause the cancellation of engagements, and led him to end his tenure as director of the Boston Symphony. Levine clearly laid all those troubles aside as he assailed Berg’s intricate score – which balances atonality with moments of romantic sweep and parodic gestures toward such familiar forms as the military march. The Met Orchestra played with some of its greatest delicacy of the season. Indeed, after such a satisfying performance, it is easy to understand why the opera’s premiere in Berlin in December 1925 is regarded as a milestone in the history of Western music.
Levine cast some of the best suited singers working today. Baritone Alan Held, who has grown considerably over the years and now counts a credible Wotan among his parts, took the title role. Capturing all of Wozzeck’s insecurities and vulnerabilities, he easily moved from humiliated buffoon to murderous killer. Waltraud Meier’s Marie showcases some of this talented artist’s best singing. At 55 and on the verge of receiving the Lotte Lehmann Memorial Ring from the Vienna State Opera, she looks young and agile enough for the part – an unfaithful mistress who is tortured by feelings of guilt and fear. Her piercing soprano will not please everyone, but it overcame the difficult orchestration to deliver her music without once descending into shrillness. Tenor Stuart Skelton, in his debut role for the Met, captured the Drum Major’s arrogant pride with consummate skill. The seduction scene – an upskirting against a wall – defies Marie’s standard luring of him into the house and only adds to Skelton’s allure. In the roles of Wozzeck’s tormentors, Gerhard Siegel and Walter Fink, cut excellent figures as the captain and the doctor. F Siegel’s pinched tenor perfectly conveyed the cruel captain, a martinet who abuses Wozzeck while chiding him for his immoral life. Fink’s baritone rolled out almost too beautifully to allow one to believe that he is a social oppressor great enough to pay the impoverished Wozzeck to take part in his medical experiments.
Mark Lamos’s stark, stylized production – based on walls placed askew – captures both the degenerated psychology that dominates the piece and the intimacy that we need to understand it well. The stage direction by Gregory Keller spares nothing by way of cruelty. Wozzeck’s humiliation is egregious yet captures our sympathy. His murder of Marie is not a conventional operatic stabbing, but a full-on throat slashing. The children’s mockery that ends the opera packs a full emotionally disturbing effect. – Paul du Quenoy