Spotlight: Why Berg's Wozzeck Matters

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When, on March 21, the Metropolitan Opera announced that James Levine would reduce his conducting duties for the rest of the season as he recovers from treatment for back ailments, I noticed something that I don’t think has been remarked upon elsewhere. This month, Maestro Levine (to whom I join all opera lovers in wishing a full and speedy recovery) was to have conducted Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Berg’s Wozzeck as well as rehearse the new production of Die Walküre that opens on April 22. Apart from the new production, the work that Levine chose to keep was Wozzeck. Score one for Alban Berg.

This is an opera that is universally acclaimed as a 20th century operatic masterpiece and, for some people, it is the greatest opera of the past 100 years. And yet there are many opera lovers who recoil at the mere mention of the work, both for its harsh subject matter as well as their perception of the music as being unlistenable. As to the subject matter, it is no more sordid than Rigoletto. The music does take some work to embrace, but I recall that I had to go to similar effort for Wagner and Strauss.

If you know me, you are aware that Wozzeck has special significance in the Plotkin family. My musician father thought it a masterpiece and heard the first New York performance, a 1951 concert version conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos and starring Mack Harrell in the title role and Eileen Farrell as Marie. On March 5, 1959, my dad and his brother Aaron went to the Metropolitan Opera premiere of the opera, conducted by Karl Bohm and starring Hermann Uhde, Eleanor Steber and, in the crucial role of Marie’s child, one Alice Plotkin, daughter of my Uncle Aaron. Also there were Alice’s mother and brother, who would later name his son Alban in honor of the composer.

It is not because of the family connection that I have a special feeling for Wozzeck. There are many other comparable family connections I have to music that are even stronger. Rather, it is because this really is an amazing opera and it did not surprise me one bit that James Levine would choose to conduct it rather than masterpieces by Wagner or Verdi.

A bit of research revealed that, in his 40 years at the Met, Levine has conducted 44 performances of Das Rheingold between 1987 and 2010, 23 of Il Trovatore (five of which were on tour and none since 1989) while the Wozzeck he leads on April 6 will be his 40th at the Met. What is also notable is that he has returned to this opera much more often than the other two. He first conducted it at the Met in 1974 and returned to it in 1980, 1985, 1989, 1997 (new production), 1999, 2001 and 2005. This means that the 2011 performances will be the 9th time Levine has rehearsed this opera with his great orchestra. With that kind of intimacy and long view, there is no company I would rather hear perform Wozzeck.

In May 1914, Alban Berg attended the first Vienna performance of the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (1813-1837). The play had its premiere in Munich on November 8, 1913. Why, you might ask, did it take 76 years for it to be produced? The play was incomplete when Büchner suddenly died of typhoid fever at age 24. Fragments of it were published in 1879 (mistakenly called Wozzeck) but it did not take full shape until it was readied for its premiere in Munich. So, although this story of an alienated soldier who murders his mistress after enduring all sorts of indignities was written in the 19th century, it came to represent much of the human estate in Europe shortly before World War One.

As Europe reconfigured after the fall of monarchies and empires, the 1920s saw a new view of the individual in society. Italy had fascism and Spain, Germany and Austria would soon follow suit. Terrible economic reversals made some people quite rich while millions were in abject poverty. The “wealth gap” was immense, in many ways just like the one Americans and others experience today. When a frustrated man acts out and commits a violent crime, he is put to death –perhaps -- and larger society seems inured to the inhumanity that happens every day, everywhere, on both the macro and micro level. Sound familiar?

Berg created a concise, dramatically rich libretto of three acts of 5 scenes each, every one with its own particular atmosphere. Act One is thought of as “Exposition”; Act Two is “Vicissitudes”; Act Three is “Catastrophe.” There are important orchestral passages that are, by turns, tender or mind-blowing in their intensity that are as much a part of the story-telling as the words and singing. The orchestra is a major character here. If I am correct, the instrumentation calls for 113 players, making it even larger than Strauss’s Elektra.

Listen to the Act 3 Orchestral interlude. Powerful and beautiful, not nearly as dissonant as detractors would claim: 

Watch and listen to Hildegard Behrens and Franz Grundheber in Act 3, Scene 2 and 3 from the 1987 Vienna production of the opera, conducted by Claudio Abbado:

You have certainly heard music much more challenging than this. You will find, too, that despite its grim nature, there is great beauty in this music too.

The Met’s 1997 production, keenly directed by Mark Lamos, with ideal sets and costumes by Robert Israel, perfectly evokes the timeless themes in the work. Much of this success is due to the amazing lighting design by James F. Ingalls, some of the best work of its kind you will ever see. There is a great cast up and down, led by the superb Alan Held in the title role and Waltraud Meier as Marie.

Waltraud Meier Receives Unusual Prize

As I began writing this post this morning, special news arrived from Vienna: Waltraud Meier will be the next bearer of the Lotte Lehmann Memorial ring. Lehmann (1888-1976) was a beloved German-born soprano who had an important career in America. She was a wonderful singer and actress, and a great interpreter of roles, words and music. She was a Kunstlerin, which is how in German one would describe a real artist. When she retired she taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, where she influenced many young artists, including Marilyn Horne, who carries on the Lehmann tradition of keeping alive the art of the song

The ring was given to Lehmann by the association of artists of the Vienna State Opera in 1955, the year the house reopened after being bombed in World War II. When Lehmann died, she left it to the amazing Austrian dramatic soprano Leonie Rysanek (1926-1998) and it came to be thought of as being in the possession of the reigning interpreter of the great German opera roles. Rysanek left it to German soprano Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009) who, in turn, designated Meier (another German) as the most fitting heir to the ring. On my short list of best performances I have ever been to is Rysanek’s 1996 Salzburg farewell to opera, as Klytemnestra in Elektra with Behrens in the title role. You might as well know now that Rysanek and Behrens are in the highest echelons of my pantheon of artists and I will mention them often. In Waltraud Meier, I believe Behrens picked the most worthy successor for the Lehmann ring.

Waltraud Meier will perform Marie at the Met for the first time. She and James Levine seem to inspire and bring out the best in one another. I described in my first post about divadom what makes Waltraud Meier a diva. A profile in the April 3 New York Times seems to concur. Readers in the New York area might wish to attend a conversation with Waltraud Meier and Alison Ames, presented by the Wagner Society of New York. Space is limited and tickets are going fast. More details (PDF).

Have you seen Wozzeck? What do you think of it? If you have not, and it has been performed where you live, what prevented you from attending?

Meier photo credit: Nomi Baumgartl