[Met Performance] CID:181320

Metropolitan Opera Premiere, New Production

Metropolitan Opera House, Thu, March 5, 1959

Debut : Earl Ringland, Alice Plotkin

In English: Translation by Vid Harford anf Eric Blackall

Wozzeck (1)
Alban Berg | Alban Berg
Hermann Uhde

Eleanor Steber

Paul Franke

Drum Major
Kurt Baum

Karl Dönch

Charles Anthony

Margaret Roggero

Ezio Flagello

Calvin Marsh

Alessio De Paolis

Earl Ringland [Debut]

Charles Kuestner

Alice Plotkin [Debut]

Karl Böhm

Herbert Graf

Caspar Neher

Mattlyn Gavers

Alban Berg

Alban Berg

Performed with two intermissions.
Translation by Vida Harford and Eric Blackall
Wozzeck received five performances this season.

Production a gift of the Francis Goelet Foundation

Review 1:

Review of Miles Kastendieck in the New York Journal-American


Rudolf Bing increased the artistic stature of the Metropolitan Opera by presenting Alban Berg's Wozzeck last night. Regarded now as a "classic" in Europe, this 34-year old contemporary opera is unique, whatever the public response to it. Since the box office proved "disastrous" as far as benefiting the Metropolitan Opera Guild's production fund, the success of the first performance must be treated as solely artistic. For that Bing deserves hearty congratulations. He has fulfilled an important obligation to the public and one of his own ambitions in bringing "Wozzeck" finally to the Met. Mixed with the cheers at the final curtain there were a very audible number of boo's. The latter provided their own commentary on those who uttered them because they indicated a woeful lack of awareness of the contemporary musical world of which "Wozzeck" is a significant part. They also overlooked a splendid production, one of the most exacting ever undertaken in the Met's entire history.

"Wozzeck" is so different from any other opera in the Met repertory that it cannot be judged in the same category. Its sordid tale of a bewildered frustrated soldier beset with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" is hardly pretty. In the framework of Berg's atonality, however, it has tremendous vitality. Indeed, Berg has made it a theatrical projection of a symphonic score, even though what happens on stage is an integral part of what goes on in the pit. Much that is paradoxical could be pointed out. A strange intimacy suggests the Met is too large for this work. Nevertheless, the orchestra has to be enlarged to the unprecedented number of 113 players. The work is short, yet more of it would be too much in intensity. The hapless soldier enlists sympathy; the murdering of his mistress is the triumph, his own drowning a happy circumstance. The necessary ugliness of the music resolves into a strange kind of beauty.

Karl Böhm won the ovations of the evening, deservedly. Conducting this score must be considered a major triumph at any time. The work it involved stretched back to the [beginning] of the opera season 19 weeks and 24 orchestral rehearsals later (unprecedented in the history of the Met), he achieved a remarkable performance. It may not have registered all the nervous tension and frightening aspect of the early portion of the opera, but it revealed unforgettable texture of sound in the last act.

Sharing the honors, however, would be the whole cast, headed by Hermann Uhde as Wozzeck and Eleanor Steber as his mistress Marie; Herbert Graf, who staged the production, and because of the vital part in the technical functioning of the production, the stage crew, which won a special curtain call. The opera contains more sung-speech than singing. Though done in English, this could be heard clearly about only half the time. Both Uhde and Miss Steber did well when the scoring allowed; in fact their performances as a whole, were notable. Miss Steber took to her role with unusual conviction.

As the mad doctor Karl Dönch won distinction for putting over his role in spite of his strong German accent. Paul Franke coped successfully with the role of the captain. Kurt Baum proved adequate as the drum major, but not much of his text was understandable.

The sets and costumes of Caspar Neher have their own atmosphere. The scenes appear more effectively functional than distinguished. In general they suggest pictorial ideas not quite up-to-date and perhaps not altogether consistent.

"Wozzeck" becomes the most significant contribution of the Bing regime. It may also be considered the weirdest in sound and fury. Rather than signifying "nothing" it proves its worth as one of the masterpieces of the 20th Century. Only four more performances remain for music lovers to become acquainted with it as presented by the Met.

Review 2:

Review of Irving Kolodin in the March 21, 1959 Saturday

It has been years since the fall of a final curtain on a work new to the Metropolitan Opera's repertory was greeted with the spontaneous bravos and applause that acclaimed the conclusion of the latest one. What it plainly said was "Welcome Wozzeck," which was only its due, of course, for the impression it made between "Aida" one night and "Boheme" another merely attested the incontestable-no comparable work for the musical theatre has been written since it was new in the 1920s.

In putting all its resources at the disposal of Alban Berg's masterpiece, Rudolf Bing has discharged a debt, closed a file of unfinished Metropolitan business and perhaps, opened a vista of operatic things to come. Whether he has, in the process, incurred some debut of a strictly monetary sort will be known better after the scheduled repetitions (the $25 top for the benefit premiere left half the orchestra unsold, and a hurried call for "volunteers" to fill the empty seats). But there are times when even a business-minded opera management must be content to take the credit and let the cash go.

Taking one thing with another, Karl Böhm's superbly cohesive direction is giving New York the best totality of the score it has yet heard. The previous efforts of Rosenstock at the City Center and Mitropoulos with the Philharmonic had distinctions relative to their surroundings, but Böhm's marksmanship clearly exceeded that generally credited to [the].... Philadelphia-based production in the Metropolitan in 1931. Considering that it has been woven into the texture of a repertory season, it attested to all-out cöoperation on all levels from stage hands to stage director. The results were equally triumphant for stage director Herbert Graf and conductor Böhm.

"Wozzeck," of course, differs from virtually any prior creation for the musical theatre in being devoid of most elements considered 'entertaining": no arias, ballet, comic "relief." etc. It has some moments of grim humor among the prevailing heartache, but it is, essentially, a relentless playing out of marked cards held in the hands of Destiny. It is hard and unyielding, tawdry and even bestial; but, even as Marie turns to the Bible for a prefiguring of her sensualism, and Wozzeck cries out to his Maker for pity, so we must consider that even its lowliest creatures are human flesh, and the blood that is spilled in vengeance has been mingled in the eternal mystery that produced a child, the helpless victim of it all.

If Berg had responded to this challenge in terms of erotic (of which there is virtually nothing), or of the psychotic (of which there is somewhat more) the results would have long since dwindled in interest, ceased to be the spectre haunting the Metropolitan that it has been for all this time. But every new hearing affirms in greater detail the totality of sorrowing and exaltation, which has been in it from the start. There comes a moment in Act II (the orchestral interlude after Wozzeck realizes he is a man betrayed) in which Berg'' somewhat cautious and constrained use of his idiom dissolves under the surge of emotion and he begins to move his tonal resources with a freedom and ease that results in nothing more nor less than poignant, purposeful music. The following scenes are mostly shorter, the momentum cumulative. With or without the increasingly clear suggestions of tonality, as in the famous crescendo on the unison C we are in the grip of an experience that may never attain "popularity," but challenges anyone to hear it out without taking it in.

Of top quality in this cast was something a believable "Wozzeck" cannot do without-a powerfully sung, vividly acted Wozzeck by Hermann Uhde. He has excellent stature for the role, a stiffly military bearing that crumbles affectingly at the appropriate time, plus vocal sonority to make his characterization complete. He has, also (for a man born in Bremen) a surprisingly adept command of the English text-the standard one of Eric Blackall and Vida Harford, somewhat amended-reflecting his foresight in being born of an American mother and a German father.

Were everybody else of this quality, the Metropolitan's "Wozzeck" cast would be considered a string of well-matched jewels; but none, at least, were paste. Eleanor Steber's Marie is, for a singer of her background, not bad; but for Berg, it is not very good. Her puffy, well-fleshed outlines scarcely suggested deprivation and poverty, her vocalism, perversely, better than it need be. Clearly, her vocal manners are so ingrained that an unvocalized sound is resisted, even when it is the essence of what Berg called "bel parlare" rather than the time-honored "bel canto." She made a searing effect in certain passages, especially in the high-lying C-B at the climax of her Bible-reading scene in Act III, and puts in us her debt for an all-out effort. But for Marie...Steber is rather a crude suggestion of the elemental.

The others in the mainly male cast range from the picturesque, if Peter Piperish, doctor of Karl Dönch, to the spirited, but thick-voiced captain of Paul Franke, and the muscular, guttural sounding Drum Major of Kurt Baum. Smaller roles were capably performed by Ezio Flagello (an Apprentice), Charles Anthony (Andreas), and Alice Plotkin as the mute offspring of Marie and Wozzeck. There was admirable precision in the orchestral playing, and enormous spirit, though Böhm's inclination to a heavy brass sound created a curtain of sonority between the stage and the auditorium that had more to do with quality than quantity. But this is a conductor with a sure comprehension of the part that detail and nuance plays in a properly realization of Berg's closely written score.

Whether the whole gained from the English text is at least debatable, by Act III it didn't really matter what language was being sung, so long as "blut" was "blood" and "hopp-hopp" was 'hopp-hopp." But no one without a sense of total direction could have made much of the narrative, word by word, and the English text was best when it came closest to the German original. As a final detail, Caspar Neher's scenery qualified as workable on the practically machineless stage and was mobile within the split-timing decreed by the orchestral interludes. But it added little in atmosphere or mood. Unlike Robert Edmond Jones's stylized "expressionism" of the old Philadelphia venture, this was blandly represntational and stylistically nondescript.

Hearing "Wozzeck" with so much high-pressured effort expended upon it, with a complement of highly talented in not wholly suitable people laboring on its behalf, stimulates a curiosity for much more knowledge about it than we currently possess. It is evident that many musical phrases and thematic elements are passed back and forth as the work progresses, and the interludes assume increasingly more importance. The last interlude, a dirge for the collapsed world of Wozzeck and Marie, is tensely, proudly beautiful and expressive, giving rise to a curiosity as to how it is really put together. If the present production stimulates more question of the sort-and, perhaps, a few answers-it will have given cause to thank Rudolf Bing far beyond another new Puccini production or even "Cav" and "Pag."

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