by Martin Bernheimer
'Tis the season to be jolly. But no one seems to have told that to the masterminds at the murky and quirky Metropolitan Opera. Apart from a few flighty Fledermice and loony Lucias, the final weeks of 2005 are dominated by bleakness and gore. Nearing the end of its premiere run, Tobias Picker's sordid An American Tragedy served as a matinee-broadcast vehicle on Christmas Eve. Tuesday night Alban Berg's eternally grim Wozzeck returned in preparation for transmission on the afternoon of New Year's Eve. Luckily it is a very good Wozzeck.
The Met isn't much celebrated for a progressive vision in matters of repertory or staging. This essentially conservative bastion encourages audiences to applaud the oh-so-realistic snowflakes in Franco Zeffirelli's cast-of-thousands La Bohème. This company pays so little attention to modernism that its subscribers find the neo-romantic mush of An American Tragedy abrasive. Wozzeck, however, stands as a reassuring exception to the cautious rule.
James Levine conducts the score as if he found it simple. That may be the ultimate compliment. Revealing equal concern for dramatic pathos and musical force, he unravels the compositional knots, savours detail, bridges the impulses of stage and pit with sensitivity that never precludes tension. Mark Lamos' boldly economical production, introduced in 1997 and now overseen by Gregory Keller, defines verismo nightmares in the abstractions of Robert Israel's spacious décors.
The current cast functions as an inspired ensemble. The baritone Alan Held literally looms over his colleagues as a Wozzeck of stunned, perfectly focused agony. Katarina Dalayman sings - really sings - Marie's music with lyrical ardour that underscores hopeless passion. Graham Clark musters wily whines as the mad Captain, powerfully counterbalanced by Walter Fink as an almost buffoon- like Doctor. Clifton Forbis struts vocally more than visually in the bravado of the Drum Major. John Horton Murray (replacing the indisposed Eric Cutler) copes manfully with the ascending trials of Andres. Anthony Laciura burns the boards in the cameo of the Fool. Expressionism has seldom seemed so urgent.