“You run by like an open knife, a razor slicing the world. We cut ourselves on you.”
That description of the title character in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is also a fair summation of the opera itself, especially as rendered at the Metropolitan Opera by designer William Kentridge, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and a carefully chosen cast headed by Peter Mattei.
This new production, which opened Friday, is the high-prestige item of the season: Besides being an acclaimed artist, Kentridge had past productions of Lulu and The Nose that were breakthroughs amid the Met’s fitful struggle to join the 21st century of director-driven productions in ways that connect with conservative Met patrons and cultivate new audiences. This dense, intermission-less, 90-minute Wozzeck was expressively focused yet expansively utilized a range of images and sound that allowed no escape.
This story of a soldier who is driven to murder by his common-law wife’s infidelity and the degradation heaped upon him by the world at large — there are three, possibly four antagonists — was an explosive breakthrough in 20th-century opera at its 1925 premiere (requiring 137 rehearsals) and 1931 U.S. debut (in Philadelphia conducted by Leopold Stokowski). Still, the opera remains a special occasion, partly because its sometimes-atonal demands are steep and the original, unfinished Georg Buchner play has the kind of expressive leeway that somehow gives voice to whatever you experienced en route to the opera house.
Now-departed Met music director James Levine seemed to apologize for Berg’s expressionistic, uningratiating score by rounding off sharper edges. Past productions have been more atmospheric and picturesque. Kentridge’s rough-hewed, black-and-white imagery sets the opera amid World War I with computer-animated zeppelins, crashing planes, and many gas masks mixed in with more cartoonish images of animals, soldiers, and well-dressed women goose-stepping to nowhere.
At times, his imagery was more free associative than logical, sometimes dramatizing the opera, sometimes commenting on it. Intentionally, nothing meshed. This world ambled, sprinted and careened in unpredictable directions, with the singers often navigating the stage on precarious duck boards (wooden planks used in trench warfare to keep from sinking into the mud). War images showed Wozzeck’s inner post-traumatic stress disorder. More objectively, the stage sometimes represented a time and place: The self-obsessed Captain and Doctor were seen against the backdrop of a war-ruined city — the long-term consequence of their short-term heedlessness.
Musically, quality of sound, with both singers and orchestra, told the story. In the title role, Mattei had a vocal magnitude that gave Wozzeck tragic stature that’s hard to come by in a character who is a psychological time bomb. As the faithless Marie, Eliza van den Heever has plenty of vocal richness to offer but scaled back into a thin, reedy tone in moments of betrayal. The opera’s destructive gang of three — Gerhard Siegel as the captain, Christina Van Horn as the doctor, and Christopher Ventris as the drum major — avoided Gothic caricatures of evil and just were who they were.
Meanwhile, the orchestra went to arresting extremes, more than usual in this score, though with careful delineation of manner when the characters are combatively dealing with the outside world or attempting to connect in more private settings. Never have I heard the early scenes between Wozzeck and Marie played with such intense tenderness. Nézet-Séguin’s message is clear: The only thing that matters in the abrasive world of this opera is the love between two people, even if it’s already waning into the past tense.
Additional performances Jan. 2, 7, 11, 16, 19, and 22 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York, all conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Simulcast: The 1 p.m. Jan. 11 performance will be a simulcast carried to 12 Philadelphia-area movie theaters (admission prices vary).