Met HD Wozzeck

They say it’s a co-production, this new Wozzeck that was broadcast in High Definition this past weekend from the Metropolitan Opera:

A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera;
Salzburg Festival; the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto; and Opera Australia.

The co-pro of Parsifal is coming next season, a production we’ve seen in HD.  When will Toronto audiences see our own Wozzeck?  This one won’t be nearly so expensive when the COC mounts it so perhaps we won’t have to wait too long.  While we could go with expensive imports (for example we’ve seen two of the Met’s cast Elsa van den Heever & Christian Van Horn in Toronto before), yet there are Canadians who can sing these roles.

Indeed after seeing the high-def broadcast I think they’d do a better job.

That’s another way of saying that while this production is visually impressive, and a triumph for Yannick Nézet-Séguin & his Met orchestra, I have some misgivings about the choices made by the performers on stage: which would suggest that a Canadian cast can do this at least as well if not better.


Peter Mattei in Wozzeck at the Met. (Photo: Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

Yes I’m starting the lobbying early. Why not?

There are at least two big caveats I need to throw out there before I begin:

  • The High Def viewpoint isn’t the same as in the house. The view from up close is so unforgiving as to be  like an acid test.  (as I shall explain in a moment)
  • I don’t know whether what we saw comes from the performers or the director, although ultimately it’s a moot point either way. But as with #1 keep this in mind as a possible footnote to what I’m about to say about the interpretations.

I’ll aim for the executive summary up front, and then pursue the nerdy stuff later.

Wozzeck is not Amfortas.  Obvious? Perhaps, but someone should tell Peter Mattei. The personage of Wozzeck would seem to pose the question: can such a passive figure even be understood as a hero?  He has very limited agency, following orders, cowering, or speaking as though he’s mad almost from the beginning.  He is a kind of lab rat in the experiments of the Doctor that might contribute to his mental problems, he’s cuckolded by his partner Marie, and mocked publicly for it.  The close-up camera does Mattei no favours, capturing all his angst, so much pain right in your face.  Perhaps in the huge Metropolitan Opera House it works just fine?  If Wozzeck knew he were mad and wanted to become sane, to be redeemed & to change? all well and good. But that wouldn’t be Wozzeck anymore. I don’t know whether this is Mattei’s doing or the outcome of director William Kentridge’s interpretation.  I understand Wozzeck as much more passive than what we see from Mattei, someone whose personal mantra could be captured in his first line in the first scene, when he says “Jawohl Herr Hauptmann” more than once.  He passively obeys the Doctor & the Captain.  With Mattei so powerful from an explosive beginning he has nowhere to build.  The voice is lovely, the emotions genuine. But perhaps his director should help give the character some shape?

I’d love to see this role played by Russell Braun or some other capable Canadian.  I found that Mattei over-acted, his every gesture and facial contortion caught by the high def cameras.  This is an expressionist opera, where the emotions are all larger than life, exaggerated in the sounds we hear from the orchestra and sometimes in the singing, and so perhaps that seems like an invitation to act up a storm & forget about subtlety or small gestures.

Van den Heever though does much better in close-up, sometimes giving us a blank face in response to the explosions from her partner.  And in every case she was the one I was looking at, the one who was believable, because she didn’t seem to be acting.  Is this a sign of a better alignment between her interpretation, Kentridge’s reading & the text?  But I’ve never seen a Wozzeck where I didn’t like the Marie. The role is unbreakable, so brilliantly written by composer Alban Berg that we can’t help but be moved. Although maybe van den Heever deserves at least some of the credit for being believable both as the Mary Magdelene side of the character and as the mother as well.  On a day when Toronto was enduring huge rains & fears of flood, there was a minor deluge on my face in her solo scenes in the first act & again in that poignant scene that usually opens Act III.

Usually that is. For this production however instead of three acts of five scenes each, we get an uninterrupted flow for fifteen scenes, for a running time around 100 minutes.  That would seem to be a brilliant idea.

The child that we first meet in the scene where Marie sings the lullaby is played by a puppet, a choice reminding me of the child in the Minghella Madama Butterfly.  While this might be one of the most troubling aspects of the production, I found it totally worked for me (waterworks as confirmation): except for the last scene.  I hate to be a spoiler but you will likely see pictures and hear people talk about this.  Again I suspect that this works better in the theatre than in high-def close-up.

Kentridge updates the production to the First World War, a little over 100 years ago.  I was just discussing something comparable last week regarding Robert Carsen’s Rosenkavalier production that has been revived this year, also updated; Carsen’s updating places the action just before The Great War begins.  I’m not sure what the updating accomplishes, as this is already one of the most powerful operas ever written, but it doesn’t harm the work.   Kentridge puts a screen onstage ostentatiously projecting images that sometimes complement the action, sometimes distracting.  During the elegiac summation interlude before the final scene I felt that the images failed to match the eloquence of the music; they need to be reconsidered.

It includes some of the most explicit lines about poverty of any opera in the rep .  Because it’s an expressionist opera it’s over the top, not just a depiction of poverty but characters talking about being poor.  Kentridge’s stage picture is often a messy collage in multiple media, people sharing the stage with puppets and masked figures on the border between human and puppet.  Of course. This is not a pretty story.

I’m hopeful that the COC will announce their plans to stage this production sometime soon.

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1 Response to Met HD Wozzeck

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