Sunday, May 25, 2014

Composer: Alban Berg (1885-1935)

13th March 2014
The Metropolitan Opera, New York

Sometimes we have to ask ourselves what we want from an experience at the opera. Wozzeck is by no means light entertainment but it certainly can be both enjoyed and appreciated. If it happens to be the first opera you attend (and mine was Dvorak’s Rusalka), it might benefit to do just a little homework beforehand to understand what to expect. Nevertheless, its 90-minute duration, consisting of three acts of five scenes each and performed without interval, can easily cast its frenetic energy and psychological insight into a memorable night’s journey.

Back in 1925, after its premiere at the Berliner Staatsoper, Wozzeck was an instant success, achieving a breakthrough for the new atonal musical structure in full-length opera and making Alban Berg, the composer, famous. The Metropolitan Opera premiere of Wozzeck was in 1959 and this current production by Mark Lamos, with designs by Robert Israel, premiered in 1997.

Franz Wozzeck is an officer in the military, subservient, troubled and an easy target of harassment by his superior, the Captain, as well as the Physician he visits to undergo medical experiments in order to support his wife and child. The ever-popular and highly adaptable American baritone, Thomas Hampson, created in voice and action a character of astonishing depth, a voice expressing a desperate struggle as he disintegrates into madness, virtually dragging us with him to the edge of a precipice where morality is left far behind.

Deborah Voight plays Marie, his wife, hopelessly guilt-ridden and seeking forgiveness from both heaven and husband after an affair with a local Drum-Major. Her unwelcome punishment is a vicious and brutal death at the hands of her psychologically disturbed husband. Voight's performance, like Hampson's, was strong and convincing. Demanding swift vocal agility and stage presence, her rendition of Marie’s plight was outstanding. Both the roles of the Captain, Peter Hoare, and the Physician, Clive Bayley, were executed robustly and harrowingly, deftly crushing Wozzeck’s being before us.

Musically, Wozzeck is oftentimes bold, boisterous and haunting, built on atonality and dissonance, which describes the unfolding drama precisely. This, after all, is a work that rests within the heart of German Expressionism. James Levine, associated as much with The Metropolitan Opera as opera itself, conducted with fluidity, force and ownership, enabling a richness of texture to fill the theatre with stereophonic layering. Of particular strength were the brass and percussion.

While the singers and musicians successfully presented the horrific story that Wozzeck is, not so successful was its visual interpretation for the stage. Robert Israel’s designs fell flat on the immensity of The Metropolitan stage. Unadorned, lofty grey partitions, minimal props and limited movement of sets between the 15 scenes seemed like insufficient offerings for the night. No attempt was made to elevate any of the action above the main stage to take full advantage of The Metropolitan’s 6-storey proscenium. Mostly unvarying, lighting was dark and gloomy, creating a world where the sun doesn’t shine and this, in combination with the monotony of the set, became tiresome. Furthermore, each of the 15 scenes concluded with the stage curtain being dropped, which felt too interruptive and too frequent for such short scenes. The one time the closing of the curtain was effective, was at the conclusion of the penultimate scene as Wozzeck took his own life, drowning in the same pond that became his wife’s grave. At this point a tempestuous musical epilogue created the moment for an opportunity to digest the story, giving the sense that the performance was over. Raising the curtain after this percussive soundscape for the final scene, in which children were seen playing near the pond where they discovered Marie’s body, was one of the few successful elements of the night’s staging.

If you can afford to sit in the Premium Orchestra (Stalls) section at $250, then you would be genuinely rewarded with the sensational dramatic interpretation acted out by the principal artists on stage. Unfortunately, this production is better suited to a small to medium-sized theatre. Challenging as it is for a theatre of colossal proportions, many an opportunity was sadly overlooked in bringing this masterpiece to the Metropolitan stage.

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