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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Opera Review: The Bloody Return of James Levine

Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera
The Doctor (Walter Fink, standing) reminds Wozzeck (Alan Held) to eat his beans.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2005 The Metropolitan Opera
A revival of Wozzeck is always cause for anticipation and dread: anticipation for those who love the knotty, disturbing opera, and dread for those putting it on who hope that people will come see it. Berg's only completed opera is a work of the highest genius, but it is rarely big box office.

This revival of Mark Lamos' stark, claustrophobic production featured bass-baritone Alan Held in the title role: the hapless soldier driven to murder his common-law wife by jealousy, madness, and forces beyond his control. Mr. Held staked his claim to the role in the opening scene, defending himself from the sarcasm and abuse of his Captain (Gerhard Siegel) even as he held a straight razor to his superior's throat. The scene made effective use of lighting design, as Wozzeck's shadow towered above the pompous officer, a harbinger of the bloodshed to come.

Waltraud Meier's searing interpretation of Marie was long overdue at the Met. You can see from her performance that she too is trapped in this life, caught between Wozzeck's growing madness and the advances, bribes and threats of the Drum Major (Stuart Skelton), Ms. Meier portrayed Marie with full emotional investment, singing with fearless leaps into the complex texture of Berg's sprechstimme. She was particularly moving in the Act III prayer, which serves as a calm prelude to her murder at Wozzeck's hands.

Mr. Held sang with dark nobility in the opening act of the opera, creating a defensive barrier around the character that was slowly torn down by the Captain, his Doctor (the excellent Walter Fink) and his rapidly deteriorating relationship with Marie. Things shattered completely when he was cuckolded in the second act, and then beaten brutally by the Drum Major. In the final act, he brought whoops of despair and madness into his performance, making his final drowning a poignant, pathetic spectacle.

Mr. Held and Ms. Meier were well matched, and supported by committed performances from Gerhard Siegel as the Captain and Walter Fink as the Doctor. House favorite Wendy White made the most of the brief role of Margret, and tenor Stuart Skelton made a compelling company debut as the Drum Major, the pompous bullying ass who thinks that he's the hero of the opera.

Last night, the Metropolitan Opera House was (just about) full, with opera-goers who gave an enthusiastic welcome to the return of music director James Levine after a two-month absence. Mr. Levine didn't disappoint, leading the 113-piece Met orchestra in a Wozzeck that shrieked, snarled and hummed for 90 minutes. It was a performance of great clarity, accelerating in the right places, and slowing for the work's few poignant moments. As the conductor on this train-ride through hell, there is no better.

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