Film and projections have played a major part in William Kentridge's productions at the Met: Shostakovich's The Nose has probably never been so well served as with his nasty, witty, nine-year old production, and Berg's Lulu, seen in 2017, was a stunner as well, even if the projections often took on a life of their own and swamped the stage action.

<i>Wozzeck</i> © Ken Howard | Met Opera
Wozzeck
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

A similar fate befell his Wozzeck. Moving the action forward to near or during World War 1 was not a problem – Berg was serving in the army when he composed Wozzeck and wrote to his wife of the dehumanizing life he was leading – but the audience, from the first, is bombarded with images of blimps, marching cartoon soldiers, wounded children, explosions and people in gas masks. Both disorienting and confusing, one all too often stopped watching the stage action and missed what the opera is really about: man's shocking inhumanity to man on a one-to-one basis. And Wozzeck here is entirely passive and a bit slow, as usual; if the images of war are his own, which we're led to believe is the case, then he is suffering from PTSD, numb to almost everything. But the emphasis should be on his inter-personal relationships with a deranged doctor, a sadistic captain and a woman who is equally bored, scared and exhausted by him and life. This Wozzeck is a nothing. He doesn't even shave the Captain; instead he uses a projector to screen meaningless cartoons for him that he doesn't watch. Captain and Doctor use Wozzeck for their own amusement and Wozzeck barely reacts.

Peter Mattei (Wozzeck) © Ken Howard | Met Opera
Peter Mattei (Wozzeck)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

This is also partially due to Peter Mattei's interpretation of the title role. He has clearly been directed not to act as a man who is going mad. A brilliant, thoughtful, singing actor with a beautiful voice, Mattei is all lyricism in this go-round, singing all the notes, whether full-value or Sprechstimme. He navigates the awkward, almost dangerous-looking sets with ease. But when he finally has a reaction, it is to murder Marie, a boiling point, one feels, that has been a long time coming but one for which we, the audience, were not prepared. He expresses no horror as he drowns in what he feels is Marie's blood. Marie is handsomely handled by Elza van den Heever. The voice is solid, if a bit weak at bottom, and she uses a raspy tone with Wozzeck in their second act confrontation which is both sneering and disrespectful. And about sleeping with the Drum Major? Why not? Her life is otherwise relentlessly drab. But she (Marie) is robbed of warmth due to the fact that Kentridge uses a puppet wearing a gas mask as her child; this gets in the way of any relationship between the two. What works in Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly is not good for Wozzeck; when the puppet is left alone on stage at the opera's close, we feel little.

Elza van den Heever (Marie) © Ken Howard | Met Opera
Elza van den Heever (Marie)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Gerhard Siegel's Captain comes close to vocal caricature occasionally but it doesn't make him any less manically dangerous, and conversely, Christian Van Horn's Doctor is the soul of sniping, calm cruelty. Christopher Ventris' Drum Major impresses vocally and struts manfully. Andrew Staples' well sung Andres occasionally got lost in the murkily lit, ugly set (by Sabine Theunissen) but Tamara Mumford made much of Margaret.

Despite theatrical drawbacks, I can heartily recommend this due to Yannick Nézet-Séguin's staggering understanding of all facets of the score and the Met Orchestra's brilliant playing. The hundreds of tempo and texture changes are seamlessly executed; the opera's 95 minutes go by organically. James Levine had previously been in charge of Wozzeck at the Met; Nézet-Séguin brings a transparency to the score that Levine eschewed in favor of an expressionistic in-your-face approach. Both are vaild, but Nézet-Séguin's is creepier and somehow more riveting. The remarkable crescendos on a single note (D) in the third act have a viciousness to them which could make a brave man tremble, but Kentridge opts to show us people dancing in the tavern at this moment when we should feel nothing but violence. The orchestral apotheosis before the final scene is tragically beautiful as I've ever heard it.

Christopher Ventris (The Drum Major) and Elza van den Heever (Marie) © Ken Howard | Met Opera
Christopher Ventris (The Drum Major) and Elza van den Heever (Marie)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

This may seem perverse, but if Maestro Nézet-Séguin remains and future producers were to work around Kentridge's (and his co-producer, Luc de Wit's) catatonic direction of the title character and opt for a bit more light on the people and less on the projections, this might be a thoroughly effective Wozzeck. The cruelty of war is maiming, but man-to-man hideousness is, in some way, worse.

****1