BWW Review: Met Audiences Learn to Love WOZZECK in Kentridge Production, with Mattei, Led by Nezet-Seguin
A funny thing happened the other night at the Met when the curtain came down on William Kentridge's stunning new production of Alban Berg's cruel and devastating WOZZECK. The audience didn't rush from their seats to escape into the night. They stayed and cheered for an opera with a reputation for being, well, challenging for opera-goers weaned on Figaros and Flutes, Aidas and even Ring Cycles.
The opera, based on a version of George Buchner's play, WOYZECK, was composed by Berg--a student of Schoenberg--to his own libretto, opening in December of 1925, conducted by Erich Kleiber. It is written in three short acts, with no intermission.
There was due cause for embracing the Met's new production (arriving via the Salzburg Festival), with a cast worth saluting under the brisk baton and split-second timing of the Met's Music Director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. There have been times at the Met where the conductors seem almost superfluous with the orchestra taking charge. Not here, not ever with Nezet-Sequin. You could watch him interact with the performers on stage as well as those in the pit and the result was a much richer, much finer performance than one could have hoped for.
As for the cast, baritone Peter Mattei as the title character and soprano Elza van den Heever (as Marie, the mother of Wozzeck's child) were a marvel, both together and separately, grasping the atonal as well as the tonal and more romantic aspects of the score.
When I interviewed Mattei nearly five years ago--during his run of DON GIOVANNI at the Met--I asked him what was on his agenda for the future. One of the roles I asked about specifically was Wozzeck and he answered positively, yet somewhat coyly, that it was "on his list." It has taken him all this time to debut the role, but the wait was worth it.
His gorgeous, flexible baritone (even when under the weather, as reported) jumped neatly from the beaten-down tone of much of the opera to the hallucinatory murder of Marie and his subsequent suicide. Having heard him in such powerful characters as Mozart's Count, Rossini's Figaro and Wagner's Amfortas, it was eye-opening to hear him as such a pitiful yet mad character figure. This was only his first go-around as Wozzeck; I'm sure he will become more gripping and shattering as time goes on.
As for van den Heever, her soprano brought steel along with mortar to the role. Berg may have felt sympathy for Marie, but I don't believe he found a way of projecting those feelings. She is a dominating presence, yet without the means to extricate herself from the pitiful life she has found for herself. I thought that van den Heever lacked some success as a mother figure, try as she did, but that is more the fault Kentridge and his choice of using a bunraku puppet for the son (worked by Eliot Flowers) rather than a live child. (The device works better in the Minghella BUTTERFLY at the Met.)
The production had a fine supporting cast of singing actors: Mezzo Tamara Mumford as Marie's friend and confidente Margret; tenor Andrew Staples in his Met debut as Wozzeck's friend Andres; tenor Christopher Ventris as the bold and brassy Drum-Major, who seduces Marie; bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the slightly unhinged Doctor who experiments on Wozzeck; and tenor Gerhard Siegel as the laughable Captain, who chastises the soldier for having an illegitimate child.
The production--co-directed by Luc De Wit, who works frequently with Kentridge--itself might look at home at the Museum of Modern Art, where the animated films, in particular, of the South-African Kentridge have fascinated art lovers. Here they form the backdrops of the grim story.
He constructs them by filming a drawing, making erasures and changes, and filming it again, giving each change to the drawing a quarter of a second to two seconds' screen time until the end of a scene. The results are stunning, with each change happening so quickly that it's hard not to do a doubletake, wondering whether there was actually a change or it was simply imagined. (My only quibble was the time and place of the piece, supposedly in the aftermath of World War I, but frequently reminding me of the post-World War II Vienna of "The Third Man" and Orson Welles.)
Catherine Meyburgh did stellar work as the projection designer, as did Sabine Theunissen as set designer, Greta Goiris on costumes and Urs Schonebaum on lighting.
I can't say honestly that I look forward to my next encounter with WOZZECK, though I am no longer terrified by it as I once was. Yet this evening at the Met was one I won't quickly forget.
Additional performances of WOZZECK will take place on the evenings of January 7, 16 and 22 and the matinees on January 11 and 19. The approximate running time is one hour and forty minutes. The Saturday matinee on January 11 will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD series, which is now seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 73 countries. The complete schedule with casting by date and performance times is available here.
The running time is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes. Complete timings are available here.