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Review: The searing beauty of Kentridge's 'Wozzeck' at the Met
Elza van den Heever with the puppet representing her young son in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” set in the lead-up to World War I, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Dec. 18, 2019. Artist William Kentridge’s arresting animations heighten Berg’s searingly honest work about a delusional soldier, The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini says. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Alban Berg’s bleak opera “Wozzeck” might not seem suited to the holiday season. One of the least cheerful pieces in the repertory, it tells the story of an impoverished and increasingly delusional soldier driven to murder and suicide.

Yet this time of year is also a moment to take stock. And few works look at life with more searing honesty than “Wozzeck.” The issues that drive this wrenching, profound opera are especially timely: the impact of economic inequality on struggling families; the looming threats of war and environmental destruction; the rigid stratification — almost militarization — of every element of society.

Those themes resonate through the artist William Kentridge’s extraordinary production of “Wozzeck,” which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening. That it arrives as 2020 beckons feels right.

This is Kentridge’s third production for the Met, following his 2010 debut with Dmitri Shostakovich’s bitterly satirical “The Nose” and his wildly inventive 2015 staging of Alban Berg’s “Lulu.” Both were filled with Kentridge’s trademark animated films and projections. For some, these stagings, while certainly dazzling, were overly busy.

While just as resourceful and visually arresting, this “Wozzeck,” introduced in 2017 at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, comes across as more coherent, perhaps because all the scenic elements are united by a central concept. Berg’s work on the score was interrupted by his service in World War I, and the opera was first performed in Berlin in 1925. So Kentridge’s production updates the setting from the early 19th century — when the source material, Georg Büchner’s play “Woyzeck,” was written — to just before that war, though it still has a timeless feeling.

The opera — which unfolds in 15 short, episodic scenes — is played atop a set (designed by Sabine Theunissen) built of platforms connected by rickety walkways, evoking a bombed-out city amid consuming chaos. Silent actors, most in gas masks, appear here and there. An almost continual montage of animation, drawings and projections, mostly in black and white, appear on and behind the set: images of blown-up churches and buildings; military maps; charcoal drawings of bedraggled people morphing into spectral stick figures; despoiled rivers and hills.

In the first scene, rather than shaving his officious captain, as indicated in the libretto, Wozzeck is operating a small movie camera that projects cartoonish images of people on a small screen. Kentridge said in a recent interview with The New York Times that he conceived the action of the opera as taking place within that projection.

Kentridge sees his role as providing the structure for a production and illustrating broader themes, giving the performers unusual freedom to fill in the psychological specificity. This worked Friday, thanks to an impressive cast led by baritone Peter Mattei in the title role and soprano Elza van den Heever as Marie, Wozzeck’s common-law wife, as well as the lucid, radiant and restless performance that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew from the Met orchestra.

Tall and charismatic, Mattei might not seem natural as a haggard soldier prone to paranoia and hallucinations. Yet, wearing dingy clothes and moving with fidgety nervousness, he conveys Wozzeck’s insecurity. During fleeting stretches of lyrical musings, as when Wozzeck realizes that Marie is the only salvation of his miserable life, he sang with burnished sound and aching sadness. While he was chilling in threatening bursts of half-spoken Sprechstimme, you sensed that this man’s life could have ended up differently.

Singing with fervor and silvery tone, van den Heever played Marie as a young woman of allure and depth who, you could imagine, impulsively turns to Wozzeck in a weak moment. When she erupts in defiance, van den Heever sent phrases slicing through Berg’s orchestra, and you understood the character’s frustrated power. It wasn’t surprising that she is drawn to the alpha Drum Major (the tenor Christopher Ventris) when he passes by and flirts.

Tenor Andrew Staples, in his Met debut, made a stalwart Andres — Wozzeck’s fellow soldier and only friend. Bright-voiced tenor Gerhard Siegel was a sneering yet aptly absurd Captain. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn brought a mellow, robust voice to the Doctor, which lent this charlatan an intriguing touch of authority.

The carousing at a seedy tavern, where the crazed Wozzeck shows up after stabbing Marie, was all the more eerie for the multilayered setting and the ominous costumes (by Greta Goiris), with the crowd in gas masks, a bitter premonition of the war to come.

Berg’s musical language in the opera is an extraordinary blend of old and new — with some tonal harmony, bursts of Expressionist angst and stretches of atonality. Nézet-Séguin, the conductor, deftly conveyed the subliminal structure of the opera; each scene is based on a traditional musical form. I wanted a little more poignancy and melting power in the richly expressive passages that sound like an extension of Brahms, Mahler and Strauss. Nevertheless it was fascinating to hear Nézet-Séguin bring out the layered complexities of this music with such transparency and pointed detail.

One of the daring elements of the production is the depiction of Wozzeck and Marie’s young son as a simple puppet, wearing ragged clothes and a gas mask. Kentridge said in the interview that using real children in crucial roles can be distracting. But I have found it moving to see a boy in the role — especially in the final scene when, riding a hobby horse, he finally follows the townspeople, who have discovered the body of his mother offstage. Kentridge’s use of a puppet seems like a solution in search of a problem.

Still, if the puppet conveyed less sadness, it was also less obvious, and perhaps more troubling. Will this orphaned boy have any chance? In fact, projections show what will likely happen: The boy appears in a soldier’s uniform with a rifle, cannon fodder for the war to come.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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