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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Wozzeck

Berg's blood-soaked psychodrama returns to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Deborah Voigt and Thomas Hampson make their role debuts in Wozzeck March 6.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Thomas Hampson makes his first appearance in the title role of Wozzeck, the story of a soldier whose lowly life is nothing but suffering. Deborah Voigt appears as Marie, his perpetually unfaithful common-law wife. (Neither artist has sung these difficult roles before.) James Levine is scheduled to conduct these performances.

Alban Berg served in the Austrian army, on the losing side of World War I. That experience inspired the composer to set Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck, an intense, dramatic story inspired by a real murder.

Both play and opera follow the story of a soldier driven mad by his condescending Captain and tortured by his Doctor. Poor Wozzeck then gets beaten up by the Drum Major, who has been sleeping with his common-law wife Marie. In the third act, Wozzeck snaps and stabs Marie then drowns in an attempt to recover the murder weapon. Fun times.

Wozzeck is a three-act opera, but the Met presents it as one, intense, 90-minute experience. The short scenes are constructed along formal guidelines. The first act takes the form of a baroque suite. The second, a short symphony. The third, with the murder and the subsequent death of Wozzeck, is a series of inventions, on a theme, a rhythm, a chord, and a note. Berg's music may sound chaotic at first listen, but by understanding the formal structure and almost Bach-like technique used to write the score, one gains a deeper appreciation for this dark, twisted opera.

Wozzeck opens March 6 for just six performances.

Recording recommendations:
Recommending a recording of Wozzeck is like finding a good dentist. The experience of a first listen may not be pleasurable, but it will pay off in the long run. Here's the best available:

Orchester den Deutsche Oper Berlin cond. Karl Böhm (DG, 1965)
Wozzeck: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Marie: Evelyn Lear
The Captain: Gerhard Stolze
The second-ever commercial recording of Wozzeck. Skilfully conducted by Karl Böhm, this set features the great lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau doing his impression of a knife-wielding maniac. His victim: the underrated soprano Evelyn Lear. All releases of this production come paired with a truncated, two-act version of Lulu from 1968.

Staatskapelle Berlin cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec, 1996)
Wozzeck: Franz Grundheber
Marie: Waltraud Meier
The Captain: Graham Clarke
The Doctor: Gunther von Kannen
Herr Grundheber's second shot at Wozzeck (everyone was making records back then) benefits from the chemistry generated in the pit by Daniel Barenboim. This is a live recording made in 1994. The pianist turned conductor leads a sumptuos performance of this spiky score. Waltraud Meier's Marie is also present here, caught in the German soprano's prime.
Tickets for Wozzeck are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office starting August 11.

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