by James Jordan
THE NEW YORK POST
Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” about a bullied soldier’s descent into madness, is one of the grimmer operas around. Yet it was cause for jubilation Wednesday night when Met music director James Levine finally returned to the podium.
The back problems that sidelined him for more than a month — forcing him to resign from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and cancel half his Met assignments — seemed not to hamper him.
With broad, expansive gestures, he led an elegantly detailed reading of this 1925 psychodrama, which featured Waltraud Meier’s volcanic portrayal of Wozzeck’s mistress, Marie.
She deployed her weathered mezzo with intelligent craft but never skimped on raw emotion, whether grunting in a lusty hookup with a new lover or guiltily reading the Bible to her child.
To the long, demanding title role, Alan Held brought a muscular bass-baritone and a terrific look, hulking and bony-faced. But his singing and acting seemed calculated alongside Meier’s mesmerizing performance.
In a smashing debut, towering heldentenor Stuart Skelton tossed off high notes like grenades as the thuggish Drum Major. Less effective were Wozzeck’s cruel superior officers, tenor Gerhard Siegel as the Captain and bass Walter Fink as the Doctor. Despite strong voices, they lacked dramatic flair, spending most of the night staring down at Levine waiting for cues.
Ironically, this tragic tale of dire poverty inspired one of the Met’s cheesiest productions: a few wobbly gray walls slashed with film noir lighting. Gregory Keller’s direction deserves kudos for keeping the energy level high and staying out the way of Meier’s gritty grandeur.
After Wozzeck’s suicide, Berg offers a gorgeous interlude as a eulogy for his antihero, a moment the Met orchestra lavished with romantic eloquence. But even that wasn’t quite as moving as the pre-performance ovation for Levine, who stood in the pit with hand over heart, repeatedly mouthing the words, “Thank you.”