By Ronald Blum
NEW YORK - Berg's "Wozzeck" does not fit with the frothy and festive fare many classical music institutions regularly offer during the holiday season. Yet the Metropolitan Opera brought back its 1997 production Monday night in a strongly cast revival starring Alan Held in the title role, Katarina Dalayman as Marie and music director James Levine on the podium. It was one of the season's successes, an intense, scorching examination of nihilism, with Levine bringing out a beautiful rendition of the atonal score.
On the surface, it is hard to fathom the Met's timing in presenting the 1925 opera, based on a Georg Buechner play. But "Wozzeck" does offer lessons particularly applicable to this time of year, with its examination of the moral rules Christianity imposes on society and the condemnation directed toward Marie, a woman who had a child out of wedlock with Wozzeck, then has an affair with the Drum Major.
Wozzeck, a poor soldier, can no longer deal with a society that has no place for him and scorns his very existence, and Marie's affair pushes him over the edge. So he stabs her and drowns while trying to find the knife.
Held is a bear of a man, towering above Marie and the rest of the cast, giving a gripping rendition in the baritone's first performance as Wozzeck at the Met. Dalayman, returning to a role she sang at the Met four seasons ago, lent a certain tenderness to Marie, a difficult task in a role than balances her wantonness, motherhood and poverty.
Graham Clark, who seemed to be about half Held's size, was the Captain, a role the tenor sang in this production's debut. He infused his character with such great scorn toward Wozzeck that his nastiness turned to glee, establishing from the outset the contempt Wozzeck felt.
The Austrian bass Walter Fink made his Met debut as the Doctor and was perfectly cast with his roly-poly appearance, his booming voice and an accent filled with sarcasm. Clifton Forbis (Drum Major) and Jill Grove (Margaret) also gave subtle accounts, and Jacob Wade was cute as the innocent Child.
Mark Lamos' production, with stark sets and costumes by Robert Israel, is virtually a monochrome gray, with high walls symbolic of a prison, although there is a splash of red to symbolize the blood.
Under Levine, the colors in the score were brilliant and breathtaking, and the 90-minute work (it was performed without intermission) was exhilarating.