by Anthony Tommasini
THE NEW YORK TIMES
If James Levine could zap himself back in time and conduct the premiere of any opera in history, what among his favorites might he choose? Perhaps the Vienna premiere of Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro." Or the Milan premiere of Verdi's "Otello." How about the Munich premiere of Wagner's "Meistersinger," a work he conducts magnificently? I love the idea of Mr. Levine's giving a sublime account of this humane comedy and forcing the anti-Semitic composer to confront his twisted prejudices.
My guess, though, is that Mr. Levine would choose the 1925 premiere at the Berlin State Opera of Alban Berg's "Wozzeck," a work Mr. Levine conducted on Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Adapted by Berg from Georg Büchner's play "Woyzeck," which was left in sketches when the author died at 23 in 1837, the opera was largely denounced by the critical establishment at its premiere. Yet it stunned and excited Berlin audiences with its excitingly radical musical language and brutally modern dramatic content. When Mark Lamos's arrestingly abstract 1997 production of "Wozzeck" returned to the Met on Tuesday night, Mr. Levine once again showed himself the living master of this extraordinary work. It remains one of the greatest achievements of his career.
Since coming to the Met in 1971, Mr. Levine has found it hard to fashion the company into a place that fosters new works, though he and the Met have done better at this in the last 10 years. But he has succeeded at another important goal: to make a few major operas from the early 20th century essential components of the Met's repertory, works like Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande," Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" and Berg's unfinished masterpiece, "Lulu."
He has said that simply by bringing these works back regularly he is convinced that he can win over Met patrons and the public. Consider this: In February, Verdi's "Forza del Destino" returns to the Met for the first time in 10 years. During that same decade, "Wozzeck" has been presented in four seasons, including this one.
Not surprisingly, there were patches of empty seats in the house on Tuesday. Many people would not consider this bleak, atonal opera appropriate holiday fare, with its story of an oppressed soldier who supplements his meager pay by performing menial tasks for a preening and abusive captain and by offering himself as a subject for the experiments of a crackpot doctor. But Mr. Levine could not have asked for a more attentive and appreciative audience. With his brilliant and searching conducting and an inspired and excellent cast, I could not imagine a more compelling production.
Mr. Levine's achievement in "Wozzeck" comes from his ability to fuse its musical and dramatic elements. Though structured in three acts, each of five scenes, the opera is intensely compact, roughly 90 minutes of music, and the Met presents it without intermission. On the surface the music seems volatile and fractured, teeming with Expressionistic fervor. Yet the score actually has a carefully worked-out structure. Act I is a five-movement suite, with a rhapsody, a military march, a passacaglia and other forms. Act II is a mini-symphony in five movements; Act III is a series of six musical inventions.
Though Mr. Levine illuminates that structure, the message of his performance to listeners is: "Let me worry about all that; you just sit back and let yourself respond to dramatic sweep and musical power of this tragic story." Through careful voicing of chords, attention to details, coaxing of inner lines, expressive nuances and sheer intensity, he drew an electrifying performance from the Met orchestra, revealing this pungent score to be deeply emotional and excruciatingly beautiful.
Heading the cast was the baritone Alan Held, a towering and vocally powerful Wozzeck. That he loomed over those who oppressed him just lent more poignancy to his powerlessness, as poverty and a sense of impotency turn him delusional. As Marie, Wozzeck's long-suffering common-law wife, the soprano Katarina Dalayman was a haunted and shattered presence. She sent Berg's vocal lines soaring with her burnished and powerful singing, yet brought affecting intimacy to the forlorn lullaby she sings to her little boy, endearingly portrayed by Jacob Wade.
In his Met debut, the impressive bass Walter Fink was a stentorian and absurdly officious doctor. Also fine were the tenor Clifton Forbis, as the preening Drum Major who seduces Marie, too passive and beleaguered to resist, and the tenor John Horton Murray, substituting for Eric Cutler (who was ill) as Wozzeck's friend Andres.
On New Year's Eve the Met is presenting a gala performance of Strauss's frothy "Die Fledermaus," a traditional offering. But there is another option for opera lovers that day. Go to the Met's matinee of "Wozzeck," let Berg's searing music and unblinking examination of oppression move and humble you. Then head off that night to a well-earned party with friends.