Anthony Reznikovsky as Marie's child and Deborah Voigt as Marie in Berg's "Wozzeck."
(Photo : Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera)
The Metropolitan Opera presented Alban Berg's masterwork "Wozzeck" on Monday, March 10 in a performance conducted by James Levine and featuring Deborah Voigt, Daniel Sutin, Simon O'Neill, Russell Thomas, Tamara Mumford, Clive Bayley and Peter Hoare.
Admittedly, "Wozzeck" is not easy viewing for anyone. The opera details the gradual degeneration of the work's eponymous character. However, Wozzeck's descent into madness is not simply an individual event; the masterwork seems to probe at the questions of nature versus nurture and its implications for humanity at large. Is Wozzeck's own demolition a result of the systematic dehumanization he experiences in the military and as the Doctor's lab rat? Is it the result of the poverty he constantly complains about? Is it the result of his poor choices? Or is it inherent, as suggested by the vulgar and disgusting humanity that dominates the entire opera? These characters are seeming degenerates without a cause. More importantly, are they degenerates at all or is this simply the human condition?
The harrowing effect of the opera is all the more present as a result of the Met's production by Mark Lamos. The entire set is black for most of the evening with a massive wall that rotates throughout the performance to create different locales; the audience eventually sees a striking red background in the work's climax. However, the overall bareness of the stage emphasizes the empty humanity that pervades the opera. The lighting, which is dominated by shadows throughout, only reinforces this dehumanizing effect. Moreover, the direction itself is raw in its execution. Afterall, this is an opera with vulgar language and direct references to urination. At one point the Drum Major pushed Marie against the wall and moved his mouth down her body, portraying vivid oral sex. Later on, the same character grabbed the title character's head and brought it to his private parts in another excruciating sexual act.
The murder of Marie was also painful to watch. Wozzeck takes the knife and slits Marie's throat with a quick horrific motion. The final scene is arguably the most disturbing of all. After the deaths of Marie and Wozzeck, the curtain rises on a crowd of children playing. Marie's son jumps around on a toy horse and even as the other children tell him of his mother's death and run to see her corpse, he continues hopping around the stage in a circular fashion. Is he aware of what happened? Does he even care? Or is his mother's death liberating? Aside from this, the boy is often told to remain asleep by his mother throughout the work. Is his ignoring the problem a mechanism he is using to avoid the problem? And more importantly, is this a representation of humanity at large, escaping from the major human tragedy through alienation?
Stepping into the title role for an ill Thomas Hampson was Daniel Sutin. The baritone's night got off to a shaky start as his voice trembled and seemed over-powered by the orchestra in the opening scene. But it must not have been an easy task to not only step in at the last minute, but to do so in such a musically and dramatically complex role. As the evening wore on, his performance grew in confidence and by the end, he was in complete vocal and dramatic control. And the overall effect was fascinating. In the early scenes, he stood motionless; almost robotic. As Wozzeck unraveled, Sutin's eyes lit up with intensity and his entire body became more and more involved in the process. It was as if Wozzeck was attempting to reassert his humanity despite his increasing fall.
Deborah Voigt was at the top of her game as Marie. Her voice peaked with thrilling high notes and her middle range created a lush and sensual effect. She managed to express Marie's dream-like qualities but was also unafraid of exposing her ugly savage demeanor. This was most apparent during the Act 1 confrontation with the Drum Major. She clawed at him and her voice took on a sharp, rugged complexion. Her treatment of the child was also rather ambiguous. She managed to create tender legati as she sung him to sleep, but was quite violent vocally and physically as she told him to fall back asleep. Her death scene was another touchstone moment; her eyes filled with tremendous pain as she fell to the ground.
Simon O'Neill was serviceable as the Drum Major, but it was his acting that really drove his performance. He had a larger-than-life presence and was swift and violent in the appropriate moments. His ravaging of Voigt's Marie was disturbing, as was his submission of Wozzeck a few scenes later. His voice, however, did not always match his physical prowess. While he produced some thrilling moments musically, his grainy tone sounded small in the theater and his singing was often washed away by the powerful sound of the orchestra.
The remainder of the cast was solid through and through. Peter Hoare was a hilarious Captain with gleeful high notes and energetic movements. Clive Bayley's Doctor, who shares many scenes with the Captain, was a solid counterpart. He was stiff and rigid in his scene with Wozzeck, but his dialogue was delivered with a sardonic bite that emphasized the treatment of the title character as little more than an insect. Russell Thomas, who played Wozzeck's "friend" Andres, provided some really thrilling high notes in the second act of the work while Tamara Mumford was alluring as Margaret.
The real star of the night had to be James Levine. In his hands, the complex colors and details of "Wozzeck" came to life with clarity and vividness. Among the most wondrous moments of the evening was the dream-like music that accompanied Marie's first scene in Act 3. The other major highlight was the famed Invention on One Note that comes after Marie's death. The legendary crescendo on the single note of B-natural shook the entire theater and even threatened to bring it down. The second B-natural crescendo was even more apocalyptic and the sudden shift to the dance music was all the more shocking. The interlude between the fourth and fifth scenes of Act 3 was passionate and vibrant in its impassioned lyricism.
"Wozzeck" is not for everyone, but those brave enough to traverse its dark waters at the Metropolitan Opera will surely be hit by its complex issues and transcendent powers.