[Met Performance] CID:279240

Metropolitan Opera House, Mon, January 14, 1985

Wozzeck (32)
Alban Berg | Alban Berg
Christian Boesch

Hildegard Behrens

Ragnar Ulfung

Drum Major
Richard Cassilly

Franz Mazura

John Gilmore

Isola Jones

James Courtney

Russell Christopher

Andrea Velis

Dennis Steff

John Hanriot

Joel Chaiken

James Levine

David Alden

Caspar Neher

Lighting Designer
Gil Wechsler

Performed without intermission.
Wozzeck received eight performances this season.

Review 1:

Review of Leighton Kerner in The Village Voice:

The Met's current revival of Wozzeck will be followed late in the season by Berg's other opera, Lulu, as the second half of the Met's salute to the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. (It's rare for an opera house, at least outside Germany or Austria, to present both Berg masterpieces in one season, but Covent Garden did it last season). The Met first performed Wozzeck in 1959. The then general manager, Rudolf Bing, considered it one of the 10 best operas but once told me that the arguably even greater Lulu was "interesting," the tone of his voice supplying the unspoken "I suppose." The Met has always done well, if hardly anything near to perfection, by Wozzeck. The 1959 scenery by Caspar Neher, the designer so important in the history of Brecht and Weill, gives all the visual detail required by Berg's stage directions, and in a simple arrangement of scenes that flowed easily even at the old Met, where the stage crew got special program-credit for their split second timing. (Berg, having constructed three acts of five scenes each, out of the unordered scene fragments of Georg Büchner's unfinished drama, provided scene-changing orchestral interludes ranging in length from the relatively extended Mahlerian lament between the last two scenes to the one following Wozzeck's murder of his mistress, Marie, a 13-measure interlude consisting of two hair-raising crescendi on the sole pitch of B-natural, sandwiching eight, quick, percussive shocks of sound.)

The production's first conductor, the late Karl Böhm, drew extraordinarily eloquent playing from the Met orchestra and powerful performances from a cast headed by the late Hermann Uhde. Böhm's successor, Colin Davis, proved just as eloquent and more respectful of certain requirements in the score, especially the coincidence of curtain falls and risings with indicated musical points. Davis's successor was James Levine, who is still in charge of Berg most of the way this season, with Jeffrey Tate listed to take over a couple of Wozzeck performances. Levine was always right on the Berg wavelength, technically and emotionally, and this season's first Wozzeck was, if nothing else, a glorious orchestral evening. Concertmaster Guy Lumia's solos and those of his fellow violinists were invariably heart-catching in their grace and texture, but everywhere in the orchestra, from shimmering celesta, lightly brushed harp, and skirling woodwinds, to fearsomely colliding brass and percussion, all was virtuosity and affective impact.

One constantly nagging problem with Wozzeck performances is the seeming difficulty in getting vocal accuracy. Berg wrote the vocal lines in three basic modes: singing, speaking, and that half way point called Sprechgesang, with the syllables delivered in a speaking voice but hitting or approximating indicated pitches and adhering to specific rhythms. (Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins is the most widely known example of the mode's practical success.) In Wozzeck, Berg, ever the finicky but shrewdly telling musicodramatist, set up his changing vocal modes for maximum effect, partly through contrast and partly through progressive changes. To ignore him on that point is to diminish the performance, and that's precisely where most singers of the role of Wozzeck, including especially the Met's current man, Christian Bösch, go wrong.

Bösch managed to get closer to the written pitches than some other recent Wozzecks, but he went for speech-song too often where full song was required. Perhaps the most flagrant example came in the second act, where he barked, instead of singing, much of the humiliating encounter with the captain and the doctor, and thus canceled out the shock of Wozzeck's speech-song outburst of jealousy against Marie in the next scene. On top of that, Bösch began the opera (the scene where he shaves the captain) not like the repressed, quiescent soldier still competent to do his job and giving only faint hints of the ravings and violence to come, but as an already certifiable lunatic who by some miracle doesn't cut the captain's throat. This Wozzeck had almost no distance to descend, which makes it tough to establish a structure for tragedy. Whether the emotional sabotage resulted from the singer's own impulse-he is, after all, a resourceful and original actor, and his uncommonly moving (yea, and occasionally unstrung) Papageno is justly famous-or whether it was the inspiration of the production's latest director, David Alden, I can't say.

Hildegard Behrens, as expected, is a stunning Marie for many reasons. Chief among them are her brilliant, secure soprano the accuracy of her singing, and the passion of her acting. But she committed the opposite equivalent of her colleague's error by singing most of those passages meant for speech-song. For a most conspicuous instance, she sang, beautifully I admit, the whole bible-reading scene and neatly erased Berg's insightful demarcations between vocal modes as indicators of Marie's mental shifts between an imagined ideal of God's forgiveness and the chilling reality of sin and poverty.

Otherwise, the ensemble work was up to the Met's high standard for Berg. If Franz Mazura's doctor was vocally weak, his demeanor was truly scary. Ragnar Ulfung made a glowering but easily rattled captain; Richard Cassilly, a formidable drum major; John Gilmore, an often lyrical Andres; Isola Jones, a richly sexy Margret; and James Courtney, a crazily sermonizing apprentice. If the Wozzeck and Marie can only get closer to Berg's vocal ideas, and Alden and Wozzeck can see their way to letting the drama boil up gradually, this would wind up as a pretty terrific production.

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