The Lyricism of Despair: Wozzeck at the Met

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Alan Held as Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera.

Alan Held as Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera.

music by Alban Berg, libretto by the composer adapted from Georg Büchner’s dramatic fragment, “Woyzeck”
Metropolitan Opera House
Saturday April 16 at 1:00 pm

Conductor, James Levine
Production, Mark Lamos
Set and Costume Designer, Robert Israel
Lighting Designer, James F. Ingalls
Stage Director, Gregory Keller.

Wozzeck – Alan Held
Marie – Waltraud Meier
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Andres – Russell Thomas
Margret – Wendy White
Doctor – Walter Fink
Drum Major – Stuart Skelton
First Apprentice – Richard Bernstein
Second Apprentice – Mark Schowalter
Fool – Philippe Castagner
Marie’s Child – John Albert

In the tavern scene, a drunken apprentice delivers a sermon in pseudo-biblical language, inquiring into the human condition while the miserable tavern-dwellers move in close to listen. Their huddled shadows mount a stark black wall angled steeply toward an invisible source of light—you sense their hope against hope that the speaker will indicate to them some higher meaning to their existence—but his conclusion is that the highest goal and purpose of life is…to get drunk.

Marie has committed adultery out of despair, ennui, the need for another to acknowledge her existence. As she stands on the street with her back to a stark black wall angled steeply upward, she gives in to the macho advances of the drum major: “what’s the difference,” and they couple suddenly, violently joining and slowly copulating against a stark black wall reflecting a blinding light as the first act curtain descends.

Wozzeck is shaving the Captain, who is trying to get him to respond to narcissistic philosophizing. Wozzeck wields his razor silently, hurrying to finish the clearly unpleasant task. On the stark black wall behind them, their inky shadows play out their exchange, Wozzeck’s shadow always looming menacingly above that of the cowering, and cowardly, Captain who attempts every trick he knows to dominate and show superiority over Wozzeck: superior intelligence, superior morality, verbal agility, military rank. But no matter where he stands on the stage in relation to Wozzeck, on the wall he is always overshadowed, and the razor in Wozzeck’s hand is menacingly enlarged until, at the end of the scene, the Captain grabs it and snaps it shut.

Wozzeck is attempting to understand the mysteries of world; in an open field cutting sticks with the thoughtless and “normal” Andres, he keeps having panic attacks: the place is cursed, there are patterns on the toadstools that Wozzeck wishes to decipher, magic and cursed heads roll dangerously about, under the earth there is a hollow space where unnamable creatures stir, and as the military drum rolls announce the sunset, Wozzeck sees a horizon filled with thunder and a strip of apocalyptic fire under an intimidating inky black sky.

In the first scene, Wozzeck has a razor, which the Captain takes away; in the second, he is holding an axe, but Andres removes it; in the tavern scene he has a knife which he is restrained from using when a group of men start singing a hunting chorus; in the third act, by the pool, Wozzeck finally uses his weapon: he slits the throat of Marie, the only person to whom he has any human connection; two scenes later, he wades into the pool to wash himself and to find the knife that he has thrown there, fearing it is too shallow and will be found. In the process he imagines that the whole pond is filled with blood, and he drowns. The stark wall behind the pond becomes a blood-red stain, against which we see the small shadowy profiles of the Doctor and the Captain who hear the sounds of the drowning man and hurry away, the Captain violating his principle against haste, and the Doctor displaying uncharacteristically irrational fear.

The stories of the Gospels, the words of Jesus, provide the only guidance toward light for the poor. He will forgive their sins as He forgave Mary Magdalene, He will gather to Himself the innocent children, yea even unto the bastards. The only other story that is told in this drama is that of a child who has no father or mother, and who will weep bitterly forever; this is a story that is told by Marie to her child and also the story we witness as it happens to that child. The opera ends with the same note on which it began. The walls of the world remain unmoved.

The brilliant production of Wozzeck that ran for only four performances at the Metropolitan Opera from April 9 to April 16 focused attention on questions of meaning, spirituality, hope, and despair without sacrificing the humanity of Büchner’s and Berg’s great drama. Alan Held’s Wozzeck was already in a distracted state at the start, but he was hardly insane or mentally defective; his “Aria” in the opening scene rose to eloquence. Held chose to take a singing approach to the role, and he imparted lyrical shape and great conviction to that moment. His was a physically dominating presence, so that Wozzeck’s inherent passivity became more menacing as the potential and motivation toward violence grew inexorably throughout the opera. It is not surprising that Wozzeck finally bursts into violence, but it is tragic that his victim is the only character in the opera about whom he cares.

Waltraud Meier also took a lyrical approach to Marie. Her character did not give off the erotic heat of Hildegard Behrens, for example; she was rather a person who possesses sensitivity and intelligence, but has become dulled by hard usage, boredom, and despair. Her lyrical moments in the third scene were brief and fragile reclamations of innocence, acts of futile defiance. Her attempts to find solace in the words of the Gospel were doomed ahead of time; she knows that she will find no peace in them even as she reads them. Her outbursts of despair were not the wailing tantrums of a child, but the steady keening of a knowing adult who gains no respite or release. Her tragedy is that she is as aware as we are of her situation, understands it thoroughly enough to realize that there is no way out for her. The only thing she has is a bit of broken mirror, just enough to be able to see herself.

There is wide latitude in the way the Captain and Doctor can be portrayed. They can be cartoon characters. The Captain may be played as grotesque in his self-obsessed inhumanity or puffed up with the self-importance of military rank. While Gerhard Siegel displayed these characteristics, they were kept in proportion so that they became believable attributes of an unpleasant person, someone whom you might meet in almost any walk of life. His silly speeches and petty tyrannies, hypersensitivities and thoughtless cruelties could have been those of that uncle you would rather not visit rather than of a monster from some other time and place.  Similarly, Walter Fink’s Doctor actually showed some attributes we normally consider admirable: he believes in progress, in the possibility that science will improve life, and he admires the human drive to achieve freedom through enhanced individuality. The only problem is that in their present state he has no use for human beings, who he considers bad (“schlecht”), and he is motivated primarily by the prospect of becoming famous and “immortal.” Such ravings can remind listeners of the Nazi doctors who were to experiment on humans just a few years after this opera was first performed; and yet like the Captain, this production’s Doctor was more human than monster. Perhaps that is even more horrifying when we realize that ordinary people have the capacity to turn into monsters more easily than we imagine. [NB – Berg took the doctor’s line directly from Büchner’s original, which he probably began in the summer of 1836 and left unfinished at his death the following year.]

James Levine and the Met orchestra contributed to the thoughtfulness of this production. (Levine was welcomed by a great wave of applause; it died down a bit as he turned to the orchestra but then swelled up greater than before. Clearly touched, the Maestro turned once again to acknowledge it, hand over heart.) Levine favored expansive tempos. This is a very concentrated opera; the scenes go by quickly and there is tremendous compression in the messages we get from the densely layered score and the gnomic utterances of the characters. Berg wisely provided interludes that not only guarantee flow and continuity from one fragmentary scene to the next, but give the audience time and stimulus to recollect, to re-experience and to assimilate and interpret the powerful events just witnessed. Levine, who made a point of returning from sick leave to conduct this work, understands that it is not necessary to press on and push one shock on top of another. He understands that the orchestral score of this unique work consists of nothing but narrative, and every member of the orchestra shared this insight. From the first note, we heard an investment by each instrument in sharing the task of narration; not a note was played without dramatic point and meaning. Even the massed sounds of Berg’s complex harmonies in such places as the scene in the fields emerged as lucidly narrative, the balances calibrated to reveal exactly the degree of menace, warmth, or perversity that Berg intended.  The slightly slower than usual pace lent transparency and rich inner detail emerged, revealing unsuspected subtleties of narrative commentary. Despite the complex harmonic language, there was no obscurity of meaning in any of the composer’s choices; the alchemy by which opera composers turn notes into stories was fully on display.

Mark Lamos’ production design was another star performer. The only moment that suffered was the third scene, where Marie is inside her room looking out the window at the parade. Berg orchestrates the acoustics of this double space so that when she shuts her window on Margret, the sound of the band vanishes. Here there was no clear demarcation, no window to shut, just a sudden disappearance of sound. It was a rare moment of miscalculation in an otherwise meticulously planned use of dramaturgical space. Robert Israel’s set and James Ingalls’s lighting, as indicated at the beginning of this review, were dark and abstract, a hommage, perhaps, to the expressionist sets of the 1920’s that were used for the premier of this opera and can also be found in the German films of that era. But it was not there to remind us of an era; its function was more to withhold any sense of time or place that could have grounded us, providing us with the comfort of the familiar. In that sense, it might have been more like a negative image of Wieland Wagner’s set for the Bayreuth Ring cycle of the 1960’s, an abstract space that refused to mold itself to the requirements of dramatic but non-mythological reality. Hence the accoutrements of military room, doctor’s office, tavern, or any other space with which we might find a sense of the familiar was denied to us. The characters in their realistic costumes floated in the menacing space of the angular walls, curiously open and yet simultaneously claustrophobic.

One lives with a great work for decades, imagining that one knows intimately all of its secrets, its possible meanings, its characters and messages. Yet, as I stated in my review of “Pelléas” earlier this year, opera is inherently ambiguous and remains open to interpretation. One imagines one knows the secrets, yet secretly hopes that another production will come along to show new meanings and reveal more secrets. The miracle of this production was that it offered a completely integrated, fresh understanding of a work one presumed was “familiar.” The impact was such that the only possible response was to take the Apprentice’s advice and look for the nearest tavern.


About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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