by Anthony Tomassini
THE NEW YORK TIMES
James Levine has been given countless ovations during 40 years with the Metropolitan Opera. But the enthusiastic round of applause and bravos he received from the audience at the Met on Wednesday night when he appeared in the pit to conduct the season’s first performance of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” must have been especially gratifying. He had last performed at the house nearly two months before, conducting Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” and it was a relief to all, it seemed, to have him back in action.
Mr. Levine’s continuing health problems, primarily chronic back pain, compelled him last month to cancel the rest of his performances this season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and to give his notice of resignation as music director. And he curtailed his spring schedule at the Met.
Mr. Levine made it a priority to conduct “Wozzeck,” a work he reveres and has performed stunningly over the years, the last time in the 2005-6 season. But I never heard him give a better account of this harrowing, deeply moving opera than this one. Mr. Levine must still be coping with back pain; he did not make it to the stage at the end for bows. Instead, he simply waved to the audience from the pit.
On the podium, though, sitting in his conductor’s chair with his arms flailing, he seemed inspired. Could the extra urgency and sweep on this occasion, and tempos slightly faster than those I remember from his earlier performances, have been motivated by a determination to prove that he was still a dynamic maestro? Whatever the cause, the results were thrilling.
Mr. Levine still drew plenty of depth, spaciousness and glow from the orchestra during the despairing passages of Berg’s gravely beautiful atonal score, first performed in Berlin in 1925. But his work had greater overall shape and more prickly energy on this night than in years past. Played without breaks, “Wozzeck” lasts just an hour and 40 minutes. The time passed without notice; the score has seldom seemed so compact and inexorable.
Mr. Levine was on the podium when the Met’s spare, grim Mark Lamos production — with sets that are all shapes, shadows and tall slanted walls — was introduced in 1997. The staging remains effective. The strong cast was headed by the baritone Alan Held as Wozzeck, an oppressed, impoverished soldier. Mr. Held’s full-bodied sound combined with his haggard, pitiful look made his Wozzeck seem especially delusional and dangerous.
As Marie, Wozzeck’s common-law wife and the mother of his little boy, the mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier was magnificent. Though her voice may not be glamorous, it is warm, humane and poignantly expressive. Singing the haunting lullaby to her child (the sweet-faced John Albert) Ms. Meier brought suppleness and earthy colorings to Berg’s elusive vocal lines. Yet during Marie’s throes of despair or, when the handsome Drum Major tempted her, desire, Ms. Meier’s voice sliced through the orchestra with burnished power. When Marie confessed her infidelity and Wozzeck was about to slap her, Ms. Meier’s Marie rashly defied him. She would rather have a knife in the belly, she made clear, than let Wozzeck lay a hand on her. Even hobbled by guilt and humiliated by poverty, this Marie was going to maintain her dignity.
The Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, in his Met debut, was an imposing, bright-voiced Drum Major. The tenor Russell Thomas brought out the decency of Andres, Wozzeck’s fellow soldier. The tenor Gerhard Siegel was aptly sniveling as the weirdly giddy Captain who berates Wozzeck for his faulty morals. And the booming bass Walter Fink held the stage as the pompous Doctor, who pays Wozzeck to be a subject of quack medical experiments.
But inevitably, this was Mr. Levine’s night. I will not soon forget the pulsing intensity and surging sound he brought to the orchestral interlude near the end Act III, after the scene in which Wozzeck, panicked over having killed Marie in a fit, drowns in a pond while trying to hide his knife; or the eerie playfulness Mr. Levine teased from the short final scene, in which neighborhood children curtly tell Marie’s boy that his mother is dead.
After the remaining “Wozzeck” performances, next up for Mr. Levine at the Met is the new production of Wagner’s “Walküre.” If he has to restrict his schedule to what he can realistically do, or redefine his role with the company, so be it, as long as he can keep turning in performances like this.