The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Met on NPR: Levine valecditorily led Wozzeck. Unqualified triumph for Waltraud Meier (Marie). Mark Lamos production. James Levine. 16.4.11

James Levine has since 1974 made Wozzeck, then several years later Lulu central staples of Met repertoire during his now very near forty years with the company. A certain amount of credit is due him for being, as many Met patrons estimate, a stirring advocate for Alban Berg’s two operas. His long familiarity with Wozzeck, played Saturday without a break, clearly evinced itself here. He dropped conducting Das Rheingold in its second run for the season and also second run of Il Trovatore (as presented at Met in HD) to guarantee himself this now likely valedictory opportunity to do Wozzeck at the Met.

Virtuosity of the Met orchestra for Wozzeck became, as expected, fully on display. Hardly anybody could have left disappointed, including with fine principal solos from viola, flute, contra-bassoon during this opera’s first scene alone. Much of their work fulfilled many, if not quite all of Alban Berg’s formal, expressive intentions. Lushness of realizing full expressive potential of the final scene of Act One got better realized this time than perhaps on two previous occasions. For Levine’s better, if still less than ideally integrating fanfare derived ‘lust’ motif introducing it into remainder of hothouse the scoring provides also on its own merits, the deeply interwoven motivic fabric infusing everything spoke forth more decisively. Contrasting with this, intricate pointing of detail, mostly to bring out character for instance of the individual dance movements of quasi-Baroque suite to which the opera’s opening scene is set was very attentive, incisive. Buildup of climax during ‘rhapsody’, scene among the brushes with Andres – with Wozzeck, literally on the verge, so to speak, achieved evocative realization

Levine, ever loyal accompanist to his singers, tended also to succumb here and there to restraining himself from tightening up musical and dramatic tension to where it might put one of his singers under additional strain, such as during brief epilogue for Marie to single encounter with Wozzeck during Act One, capped by her impassioned reprise of Wozzeck’s signatory ‘Wir arme leut.’

For Act Two, concentration for maintaining optimum grip on the inner workings of Berg’s scoring then seemed distracted. Key was impulsivity on Levine’s part to underline or enhance some extra certain key moments – such as his rushing exaggeratedly through brief stretto interlude between its first two scenes. Even with the bizarrely transitory quality of how much of the central Largo (Scene Three) of Act Two is written – and its episodic references back to both Drum Major sightings during Act One, this Largo contains much of its own material on its own merit. Principal cellist Rafael Figueroa’s vulgar rushing of his opening solo to this made segue into streamlining of much of the rest of this scene.

Proportions for the tavern, ‘grand opera’ scene emerged mostly intact, with fine Mahlerian lilt for its opening laendler. Concertato of brass framing ‘pitchless’ huntsmen’s choruses was excellent, until toward end of scene becoming too rushed. The best at grandiose gesture had to wait until interlude into the final barracks scene, starting off with choral snoring amongst the men clearly louder than marked. String section parody, gavotte style, of military piquancy got the point across, though all slightly worked, toward abetting clipped brass stretti to break out.

Waltraud Meier’s artistically superior command of Marie assisted bringing Levine, his shaping of things into intense focus, with fine lyricism, including well honed in tone painting to limn numerous things during first half of Act Three – such to never fully get restored again until orchestral epilogue to the opera. Crest to the big line building through this interlude formed in part by much reminiscence of earlier events was very fine. The two scenes prior to it got rushed - played mostly for melodramatic effect, through, frustrating, rushing through the swallowing up of Wozzeck into the depths; eerie atmosphere surrounding children at play for brief final scene eloquently, disquietingly framed the preceding interlude.

Allan Held, replacing Matthias Goerne, played Wozzeck. While singing calmer, still despairing passages, such as aria with which to fully introduce himself, he disguised well some thinness from often now a conspicuously hollow middle register. Low notes are also weak. It was for these moments, calm opening of final exchange of lines with Marie by the lake included that Held won the most sympathy for his character.

Tendency to shoot much higher for pitches or Sprechstimme suggestion thereof also showed up early though. Exaggeration of dramatic gesture during long scene in Act Two in company of both Captain and Doctor needling him, took Held clearly beyond the pale, beyond point he could maintain any tonal quality either spoken or sung, at all - rendering him practically hoarse. His giving some lines, often hallucinatory text some shape and meaning during passacaglia alone with the Doctor revealed good musical and histrionic understanding of what is going on, along with calm solicitude of Marie and child during two other scenes. Loss of dignity for Wozzeck during much of this was such that other than to voluntarily suspend disbelief, it became difficult from Held to perceive any better a Wozzeck than as though cut out of cardboard.

Stuart Skelton emerged sturdy vocally, at first gentlemanly as the Drum Major, scrupulous to pitch and Berg’s note values while coming across haughty, a little blown up in both what develops into confrontation with Marie and then later with Wozzeck. Of less consistent quality were the Captain and Doctor of Gerhard Siegel and Walter Fink, respectively. For each of their individual scenes in Act One, their individual comedic sense of their absurdist lines was very fine. Siegel relied well upon text, good pointing thereof to at first convey the Captain’s (willful) neuroticism. Fink drew upon deep vocal reserves to assist in making parody on much hyper-attenuated gravitas of the Doctor. Over what started as fine intricacy and voice leading from Met wind principals, both failed to avoid exaggerating everything during their Act Two extended scene together.

Russell Thomas made very flexible turn out of an ideally earthy, artless, simple Andres, with fine bonhomie, sanguine demeanor. The two workmen, Richard Bernsteibn, Mark Schowalter, started off lustily, robustly, but with Bernstein hamming up the absurdity of opening his proto-Marxist sermon at the tavern until making better sense of how it wraps up. Wendy White took to Margret’s exchange of gossipy invective with Marie on very broad terms, then settled comfortably into her Thrid Act song for Swabian lass with fruity aplomb, but got rushed off making the most of her menacing designation of ‘Blut’ across Wozzeck’s right arm. Philip Castagner made exaggerated caricature of the Idiot.

Utter theatricality of this venture was seldom in doubt, pairing up Mark Lamos’s plainly lit abstract set, with which to amply provide the action space, and toward humanizing matters with James Levine’s broadly Romantic leaning approach Pacing overall was good, exception being some compulsive rushing through certain passages – in part to compensate for lingering a bit much to gild several others. Levine, even today, wears things still a little on the sleeve his affection for this music, and narrative it unfolds.

Nothing here however could compete with the fierce and uncompromising dedication to the part of Marie Waltraud Meier provided. Not only does she fully convincingly live the part on stage, but painstakingly accomplishes singing literally everything perfectly in tune, drawing out of the Met orchestra beautiful limning of their sonorities during for instance the first scene of Act Three.

Contrast between saucy repartee with Margret and doting lullaby over her son, just as much between her at first glib attention to Wozzeck’s raving and smoldering passion for the Drum Major became perfectly established here. Meier also made Marie’s pleasure in company of her son and with gift from the Drum Major equally palpable, contrasting with her growing anxiety in presence of Wozzeck and then her eventually, ominously defying him. Marie’s beginning to awaken to conscience, while sifting through varied emotions and Bible verses very stoically, realistically took on tragic proportions, together with very poignantly rendered belated attempt to better reach out to Wozzeck during their final scene together. Some can still recall Falk Struckmann’s definitive interpretation of the title role at the Met, fourteen years ago, to attempt reckoning what such match-up practically anywhere could have yielded. Meier and Struckmann have now met for short run of Parsifal in Vienna the following week.

As an aside, Struckmann was the dramatically vivid Scarpia on an otherwise quite ordinary January Met broadcast of Puccini’s Tosca; I did not remain tuned in after Act Two. Since, as further aside, the Luc Bondy production of Tosca opened at the Met in 2009, with its willful postmodern eccentricities, nobody else has so definitively contributed to portraying any character therein so well ,as Struckmann now has.

Had the Met been able to bottle up the intensity Meier and Struckmann have contributed to their parts from principal players and conductor involved too, overall effect of such a Wozzeck, instead of being just relatively fulfilling as occurred here, could have been explosive. What will linger on from this experience will most of all be the unforgettable Marie from Waltraud Meier, taking curtain calls with John Albert,as the boy – Meier again revelatory of what might or could have been – in context her selfless and complete dedication to marriage of Alban Berg’s music to Georg Buchner’s text.

Comments dedicated to Dr.'s Richard Kim, John Baird (retired0 and to Connie and their seemingly indefatigable good work.

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