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April 11, 2011

A Perfect Opera

Those words rarely belong together, because opera is such a complicated form that some bit of it -- some aspect of staging, or singing, or plot -- is almost bound to be slightly annoying or at the very least worse than the rest of it.  But the production of Alban Berg's Wozzeck that is now at the Metropolitan Opera is about as close to perfect, I think, as anything can be.

For one thing, it is only an hour and forty minutes, performed without intermission.  (If only everything, on every stage, could be performed that way!)  For another, it is conducted by James Levine, rapturously welcomed back from his recent illness by a knowledgeably excited audience.  The cast -- Alan Held as Wozzeck, Waltraud Meier as Marie, and Gerhard Siegel, Walter Fink, and Stuart Skelton in the other major parts -- is uniformly excellent, with no let-downs in terms of either acting or singing.  But best of all is the opera itself, and Mark Lamos's production is designed to allow that "thing itself" to shine through with utter clarity.

There is not a single excess piece of set or costuming on the stage:  Robert Israel, who was responsible for both, confined himself to a stark, expressionist design that is filled with haunting shadows (courtesy of lighting designer James Ingalls).  This is the sad, oppressive, grotesquely unfair world of the army private Wozzeck, as Buchner conceived it and as Berg translated it into music.  That music is both forcefully expressive and disarmingly adventurous, and the purely musical interludes (which come, in this opera, between each stark scene of action) have been given tremendous power by the way they are performed:  a black safety curtain comes down during the last lines of singing, and then the interludes are played against that blank screen, so that our attention is fully focused on the music.  Yet this seeming interruption does not detract in any way from the forward motion of the story; on the contrary, Wozzeck's and Marie's painful fate seems to hurtle toward its ending with even more inevitability than usual.  This Wozzeck is horrifying without being sentimental, beautiful without being pretty, and it grips one's attention from start to finish.

There are only two performances left, and, shockingly, there are seats available, because people think they do not want to hear atonal music in an opera.  They are wrong.  Benefit from their ignorance, and go.
April 11, 2011 8:36 AM | | Comments (0)

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