James Levine did what he was expected to do on Tuesday night: conduct a superb performance of Berg's "Wozzeck." The Metropolitan Opera has revived Mark Lamos's production of 1997.
Mr. Levine is Alban Berg's best friend on earth. He programs Berg every chance he gets: in the opera house, in the concert hall, in the chamber hall, in the recital hall. (Recall that Mr. Levine functions as both a conductor and a pianist.) Berg's output is relatively small, and Mr. Levine has championed just about all of it. His understanding of this composer is remarkable. Of course, his understanding of most composers is remarkable. That's what makes a musician.
Berg wrote two operas, the first being "Wozzeck" (1922), the second being "Lulu" (1935). While "Lulu" is not exactly feel-good - the title character gets cut to death by Jack the Ripper - "Wozzeck" is maybe the most terrible opera extant: terrible in that original sense of dreadful, too awful to behold. Briefly, the story concerns the inability of one man, Wozzeck, to cope with the cruelty that the world inflicts on him. He succumbs to madness, murder, and self-murder.
When Mr. Levine stepped into the pit, the audience went bonkers - obviously, they had heard him before. Mr. Levine proceeded to justify their enthusiasm. He led a "Wozzeck" that was taut, riveting, and right. He brought to the work a discipline both technical and emotional. He was plainly the student of George Szell (Cleveland's great maestro). A lesser conductor would have attempted to juice up the drama - but Mr. Levine knows that the drama is fully written in. Berg has supplied the foreboding, the mockery, the desperation, the terror. Mr. Levine simply let the music operate.
He understands that, of all lilies, "Wozzeck" doesn't have to be gilded.
Berg's score is nearly infinite in its variety. It is luminous, delicate, lush; it is also sparky, thorny, blood-curdling. Mr. Levine conveyed every aspect expertly, and his pacing of the opera - brief, at 100 minutes - was uncanny. What Mr. Levine demonstrated was, in a word, judgment. And I should emphasize the precision - the accuracy - of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. If there is not accuracy in this opera, interpretive insight may be for naught.
The orchestra made some mistakes, yes, but these were trivial, in the larger context. Notable among the players was a cello, both ravishing and haunting. Percussionists were on the money. And the onstage ensemble in Act II was completely winning.
Starring in the title role was the American Alan Held, who owns one of the most beautiful bass-baritones in the world. That voice is big, too, and exceptionally smooth. Fortunately, Mr. Held is also a skilled singing actor, and his Wozzeck was as believable as it was heartbreaking: heartbreaking because believable. Mr. Held is a very large man, and this made the character all the more pitiable: a helpless giant. Mr. Held was pathetic in his movements, bossed around, and ruined, by littler people.
In the role of Marie was Katarina Dalayman, the Swedish soprano. It was she who sang Marie when the Met staged "Wozzeck" four seasons ago - and she is, indeed, a standout in this role. On Tuesday night, she sang beautifully, evenly, and securely. Some of her top notes weren't pretty, but some of them didn't need to be, and some of them were. Dramatically, she was the mother, the betrayer, the victim - everything Marie is.
The Captain was portrayed by Graham Clark, the British tenor, who - in his singing and acting - was annoying and repugnant. In other words, he did his job.The bass singing the Doctor was something of a find: Walter Fink, an Austrian, making his Met debut. He showed a sizable, glowing instrument, and his Doctor was appropriately chilling: a clinical, inhuman SOB.
The Drum Major was Clifton Forbis, an American tenor, who strained some, but not disagreeably: The music can take it, and virtually calls for it. Another tenor, John Horton Murray, sang fairly freely as Andres. The mezzo-soprano Jill Grove made a duly earthy Margret. And Anthony Laciura - the Met's beloved character tenor - appeared as the Fool, startling and alarming. It's possible to make a deep impression in just a second or two.
Mark Lamos's production is shadowy, spare - perhaps too minimalist for its own good, but undeniably effective (and, best, unobtrusive). Robert Israel has costumed the show grittily. James F. Ingalls has lit it intelligently. And Gregory Keller's stage direction is honest, ungimmicky, and compelling.
Have you ever seen "Wozzeck" in the opera house? A good performance is a shattering experience. It is almost unbearable. You're practically sorry you came. So it was with Mr. Levine et al. on Tuesday night.
On January 8, by the way, Mr. Levine and the orchestra will perform Berg's Altenberg Lieder with the soprano Renee Fleming at Carnegie Hall. That will be less terrible.
Until January 6 (Lincoln Center, 212-362-6000).