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Friday, March 7, 2014

Opera Review: The Ringer Cycle

Matthias Goerne's surprise Wozzeck at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He knows where his towel is: Matthias Goerne in the title role of Wozzeck.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
At 2:10 yesterday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera announced that Thomas Hampson had withdrawn from Wozzeck. Mr. Hampson's substitute would not be the scheduled (and already contracted) cover, but baritone Matthias Goerne. Mr. Goerne, who has sung the title role to acclaim at other houses, was in New York to sing a lieder recital at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night. Smoke signals went up on the Internet, and a hastily written press release was slipped into thousands of copies of Playbill.

Even before this bit of operatic gamesmanship this revival of Mark Lamos' Spartan-but-sturdy production was an occasion for excitement. For one thing, it featured a podium appearance by music director James Levine, conducting a work that has been one of his repertory specialties for the past three decades. For another, it also marked the return of soprano Deborah Voigt to the Met stage in the crucial role of Marie, Wozzeck's unfaithful mistress and the target of his murderous obsession.

Turning in his mechanized chair to greet the house, Mr. Levine did something last night this reviewer had never seen. He lifted one hand and tipped a little salute with one hand before turning to conduct the first act. The Met maestro led each of the three short acts with very slow tempos that brought out the finer points of this score. Details emerged in the texture of the music, including sly references to Beethoven, Wagner and particularly Richard Strauss (a bit of Salome appears when Wozzeck raves about Marie's red lips.)  As the tempos slowed, the effect was one of added weight to the ponderous load already on Wozzeck's poor shoulders. Following the solder's death, Mr. Levine led a beautiful, brief elegy to the deceased. This was exquisitely played.

With little or no rehearsal in this production, Mr. Goerne proved an occasionally menacing, always compelling and very sympathetic Wozzeck, tortured by visions of light, blood and fire. He loomed over the other singers, his torment barely contained. There always with a weapon too close to hand, and the threat of violence was present from the first scene. Mr. Goerne caressed Berg's sinuous vocal line, reaching deep into himself for the big moments. This was a fearless performance from a man who knows this part cold.

Ms. Voigt had every opportunity to rehearse her part. And judging from last night, her Marie is competent, but in some ways still a work-in-progress. She did well enough with the dialogue and sprechstimme, and was terrific in the prayer scene. However, the loose femme fatale of the libretto is replaced by a vapid, seemingly passive figure who meets her end too easily. Ms. Voigt's only weapon is her tightened, bright high register that becomes slightly shrill when placing high notes at full voice.

Speaking of shrill, character tenor Peter Hoare was an excellent Captain, playing Wozzeck's obsessive-compulsive superior officer with a nasty sharp edge. He was perfectly paired with the Doctor (Clyve Bayley). In his Met debut, Mr. Bayley lacked the chilling lower range that can make this quack truly terrifying, but was able to get across the sadistic streak and total lack of medical knowledge that are this character's chief attributes. Russell Thomas was strong in his scenes as Andres, singing with bright tone. Less compelling: heldentenor Simon O'Neill as a colorless, but loud Drum Major.

Excepting Mr. Goerne, the brightest star of this entire performance was the Met Orchestra, which sounds renewed and very glad to be playing under Mr. Levine's guidance. The pointillist woodwinds and bright, slashing strings contrasted with the clatter-bang of percussion and deep, round tones of the superb brass section. Mention should also be made of the Met choristers, playing an enthusiastic cadre of drunken soldiers, and of young Anthony Reznikovsky's performance as Wozzeck and Marie's newly orphaned child. As always, he had the last word.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.