It has been a tale of two Wozzecks this past week in New York, a rare occurrence born of scheduling coincidence. There was a concert performance at Carnegie Hall from the Vienna State Opera and Franz Welser-Möst, and then six days later this, the opening night of a revival of Mark Lamos’ production at the Metropolitan Opera, under the steady hand of James Levine.

Matthias Goerne © Marty Sohl
Matthias Goerne
© Marty Sohl

Two Wozzecks, but one Wozzeck. Having distinguished himself at Carnegie, both in Wozzeck and in Die schöne Müllerin with Christoph Eschenbach, Matthias Goerne generously stepped in for an indisposed Thomas Hampson, who came down with bronchitis. Goerne had sat in on the dress rehearsals for this production, just as Hampson had watched from the stalls while Goerne performed earlier in the week. With minimal rehearsal, and the promise of working with a conductor taking a very different approach to Welser-Möst, came a sense of electricity, of improvisation, and of contingency that spread throughout the entire performance.

The production asks few questions, but does hint at a good many thoughtful answers. Robert Israel’s sets, first seen in 1997, tower in industrial grey over the “arme Leute” (“poor people”). The lighting of James F Ingalls is the key, thrown up on those vaguely futurist backdrops and down from spotlights. In the way it picks out characters and scenes in the gloom, light symbolises various forms of hope in this production: the hope of redemption through discipline and armed force (the Captain); the hope of science (the Doctor); the hope of love and family (Marie and her child); the hope of alcohol (the tavern scene); even the hope of music, as the tavern’s pianist is shadowed in stark relief on the back wall. On the surface, Wozzeck is about the destruction of hope for the central character, and here Wozzeck constantly emerges from the darkness, only to be disappointed by the light. In the end, with only the light of blood provides relief.

Wozzeck © Cory Weaver
Wozzeck
© Cory Weaver

Goerne’s Wozzeck here was unrelentingly brilliant. In his performance a week earlier, his acting (if not the music) had suggested that Wozzeck’s life came apart only with Marie’s indiscretions. Not so here. Lamos’ Wozzeck is rightly on the edge from the very beginning, Marie’s liaison with the Drum Major proving only the final straw in his long dehumanisation by science, order, and war. Goerne raged against what we know to be his destiny, savagely at times, bitterly always, and with an unsparing attention to the violence of Georg Büchner’s words. (The contrast with his mellifluous Schubert was remarkable.) If at times he struggled to project in this barn of an opera house, Goerne only illustrated one more thing for his character to overcome. This was a performance of undoubted greatness.

There were superb characterizations elsewhere too. Peter Hoare has long been an outstanding Captain, not unknown to New York audiences after Esa-Pekka Salonen’s devastating performance with the Philharmonia at Lincoln Center eighteen months ago. Snivelling, abrasive, fundamentally decrepit and yet earnestly devoted to a bankrupt moral order, Hoare’s reedy tenor suits this role superbly, and his contortions onstage thoroughly enacted the Captain’s inherent hypocrisy. Clive Bayley’s acerbic, objective Doctor, downright creepy at times, was marvellous too, ominously looking forward to the medical horrors of the years after Wozzeck was written. Russell Thomas’s Andres was sung with a pinging clarity, a dedicated and keen companion, if naïve.

Deborah Voigt (Marie) © Cory Weaver
Deborah Voigt (Marie)
© Cory Weaver

Deborah Voigt’s Marie was devoted to her child, motherly, but not a great deal more. Some unfortunate high notes did not detract, but what did was a strange sexlessness, an ambivalence rather unsuited to a character just as trapped as is Wozzeck, but trying to use her sexuality as a way out. Simon O’Neill’s Drum Major similarly lacked charisma, not to mention the requisite brutality.

It would be difficult to find a conductor as devoted to Alban Berg as James Levine. Without underplaying dissonance, Levine takes a deeply Wagnerian approach to this music, not in terms of lushness, but in his attention to thematic development. Never have I heard the internal workings of this score – its tonal relationships and its leitmotifs – laid out with such transparency. It felt excruciatingly slow, although filled with tension, but by the clock it wasn’t. The downside to that was that the more exuberant music lacked pizzazz and there was a general lack of modernist white heat. The payoff was a cumulative power merciless in its nihilism: there was no sympathy at all to be found, even in the final interlude, after Wozzeck’s death. The orchestra, as ever under Levine, was faultless. Any Wozzeck is worth hearing, for this is the greatest of 20th century operas but, regardless of Goerne, its playing makes this doubly worthwhile.