New York: Long a champion of Alban Berg`s two operas, James Levine was forced to cancel his performances of ‘Lulu’ at the Metropolitan Opera last season while recovering from back surgery.
This year, despite lingering frail health, the Met`s music director was determined to be on the podium for ‘Wozzeck,’ even though it meant cutting back elsewhere in his schedule.
On Wednesday night, he led the first of four performances of this harrowing work, and it was, simply, one of the great nights of the season. The triumph was due not only to Levine`s conducting and inspired playing by the orchestra, but also to a superb cast led by Alan Held in the title role and Waltraud Meier as his faithless lover, Marie.
Wozzeck, which premiered in Berlin in 1925, is based on a play by Georg Buechner written nearly a century earlier. It tells in 15 brief scenes the tale of a common soldier driven to madness, murder and death by the merciless forces of society.
Held, with his tall, sinewy frame and wide-eyed stare, looked the perfect embodiment of the alienated Wozzeck. Held`s voice is strong enough to cut through Berg`s heavy orchestrations without having to resort to shouting, and it was a pleasure to hear the melodic line shaped with such attention to detail. This fine American baritone has never quite achieved stardom at the Met, but he has made this role his own.
Meier, looking astonishingly young for a woman of 55, gave us a Marie who seems doomed from the start, wracked by guilt and fear even as she takes pleasure in an affair with the preening Drum Major. Vocally, there were some hard-pressed high notes and loss of power in the middle register, but these blemishes hardly mattered amid the warmth and vitality of her overall performance.
The many supporting roles were entrusted to first-rate singing actors.
Tenor Gerhard Siegel bellowed with marvellous gusto as the pompous Captain; bass Walter Fink riveted the attention as the gleefully sadistic Doctor; and Stuart Skelton made an impressive debut in the heldentenor-like role of the Drug Major. Also worthy of note were tenor Russell Thomas as Wozzeck`s friend, Andres; baritone Richard Bernstein as the First Apprentice, and mezzo-soprano Wendy White as Marie`s neighbour, Margret.
The production by Mark Lamos, new in 1997, remains effective in its use of shadows and lighting to suggest the hallucinations from which Wozzeck increasingly suffers. Robert Israel`s abstract sets rely on slanted walls and steel girders to create a stark, unforgiving world.
Most of all it was Levine`s impassioned shaping of Berg`s score — atonal yet filled with gorgeous melodic fragments and themes — that made the night so memorable. The great orchestral interlude that follows Wozzeck`s death built with a rare precision to its shattering climax.
At the end, Levine remained at the podium. As the cast took their bows on stage, he turned to face the audience, beaming to acknowledge the thunderous ovation.